This sorrowful tale of the fatal poisoning by oleander sticks used to roast treats over a campfire has been part of the urban legend canon for decades, with many of our readers in the United States reporting having heard versions of it in the 1960s and even the 1950s. It was also told as a true, local, and recent tale in the 1970s in Australia.
A troop of Boy Scouts on a camping trip (no one can say where specifically) decides to have a weenie/marshmallow roast. They cut some sticks for everyone, and roast away, and eat their fill. The next morning they are all dead because they all used oleander sticks to roast with, and as your basic retard knows, oleander is deadly poison (where was the scoutmaster?).
I understand that any part of the oleander plant is toxic to all mammals. However, my veterinarian told me a story about a family cooking hot dogs over a fire while camping. Supposedly, the family unwittingly speared the dogs with branches from an oleander to cook them over the fire. All of the family members succumbed to oleander poisoning, which affects the heart.
In fact, the tale is far older. A version of it appears in a gardening book published in England in 1886, under the entry for "Nerium" (which is another name for this plant):
The leaves are fatal to animals (horses, &c): the flowers have caused death to those who carelessly picked and ate them, and it is on record that the branches, divested of their bark, and used as skewers, have poisoned the meat roasted on them, and killed seven of twelve people who partook of it.
Similar is this cite from an 1853 book (which itself references a 1844 publication):
In 1809, when the French troops were lying before Madrid, some of the soldiers went a marauding, every one bringing back such provisions as could be found. One soldier formed the unfortunate idea of cutting the branches of the Oleander for spits and skewers for the meat when roasting. This tree, it may be observed, is very common in Spain, where it attains considerable dimensions. The wood having been stripped of its bark, and brought in contact with the meat, was productive of most direful consequences, for of twelve soldiers who ate of the roast seven died, and the other five were dangerously ill.
We've no idea how valid those claims from 1886 and 1853 are, but at least these entries grant a far better appreciation of the age of this cautionary tale.
Oleander is a common outdoor woody shrub found in warmer climates, often used for edging freeways or gardens. It is also quite poisonous, with the ingestion of as little as a single leaf reportedly being enough to kill a child. It is a plant worthy of respect even by those who neither have children nor themselves make it their habit to gnaw on shrubbery, as cats and dogs -- and even horses -- have been killed by oleander poisoning.
According to this well-traveled cautionary tale, the unwitting use of oleander branches or leaves in a campfire brings about the death of a group of people either through roasting sticks fashioned from the plant adding a fatal kick to cookout ingestibles or the leaves or branches used to feed the flames creating a deadly cloud of poisonous smoke. Because this is a legend meant to make a point about the danger posed by this particular plant so that those exposed to the tale will afterwards be more careful about their use of plants in the wild, the victims are presented as folks with whom listeners will sympathize: a troop of Boy Scouts or a vacationing family (which implies the presence, and thus the demise, of small children). The use of sympathetic characters makes for a loss deemed especially tragic and adds to the pathos of the story, which in turn helps ensure that the tale better sticks in memory and so makes for a more effective teaching device. Likewise, in this legend the element of horror is raised to the highest possible level in that everyone in the group exposed to the oleander dies: not one Boy Scout survives the hot dogging, nor does any member of the luckless family live through their exposure to the acrid smoke. All die, as they must if the point is to be made.
Was there ever such an ill-fated family or troop of Boy Scouts? Though we've searched for news stories about such a tragedy, we haven't found any, not even an account of a non-fatal poisoning. Death by oleander is rare to begin with, and the cases we've located so far involved direct ingestion of the plant.
In Los Angeles in 2001, a woman suspected of administering a lethal mixture of antifreeze and oleander to her husband was charged with murder. Also in Los Angeles, but in 2000, two adopted Russian boys (age 3 and 2) died from eating oleander leaves off a neighbor's hedge. Both were found dead in their cribs. Their mother said she saw the children chewing the leaves a few days before they died and noticed they had picked some again the night of their deaths.
How poisonous is poisonous? Oleander (leaves and branches) is deemed extremely dangerous, with the poison known to affect the heart, produce severe digestive upset, and to have caused death. The size and relative health of the person ingesting the plant have a great deal to do with the severity of the poisoning. Their relatively small body size places children especially at risk, making oleander a plant one may not want in one's garden if children are part of the household or live nearby.
Yet could enough of the plant's deadly essence be transmitted to a foodstuff during a cooking process that involves skewering the item to be eaten on an oleander stick? Highly unlikely says this 2005 toxicological study:
Methods: Hot dogs (Hebrew National Beef Franks, ConAgra Foods) were skewered their full length on either freshly-cut or dried Nerium oleander branches (4 each) and cooked over a disposable charcoal barbecue. The cooked hot dogs were then frozen until analysis of oleandrin content by liquid chromatography/mass spectroscopy.
Result: Hot dogs cooked on dried branches contained 14.3±8.8 ppb oleandrin, while hot dogs cooked on freshly-cut branches contained 7.0±2.1 ppb oleandrin (control: 1 ppb< oleandrin). The most contaminated hot dog contained 1.5 mg oleandrin; even allowing for other unmeasured cardiac glycosides, this oleandrin content is orders of magnitude lower than that expected to cause human toxicity if the hot dogs were consumed. In addition, several mechanical difficulties with both the freshly-cut and dried oleander branches make their practical use as skewers to cook food unlikely.
Conclusion: Hot dogs cooked on Nerium oleander branch skewers contain a negligible amount of oleandrin. Poisoning by consuming hot dogs or other food items cooked on oleander branches is probably an urban myth.