Nerium oleander is an evergreen shrub commonly found in backyards and along roadways. It’s also poisonous. But despite that, researchers are taking a strong interest in oleander for its use in anti-cancer treatments.
Curtis is growing oleander to support a skin-care product line produced by Nerium Biotechnology, a Canadian company whose U.S. headquarters is based in San Antonio and that operates a factory in Dallas.
From the farm, Curtis points out the house nearby that he shares with his wife, Janet, on property her family has owned since 1888.
Down the road is a historic brick yard and a patch of pecan trees —one is believed to be 400 years old— as well as two natural springs.
Four years ago, Nerium Biotechnology bought the farm from Curtis, who still serves as the director of farm operations. Lately, Curtis has been giving tours to investors from across the globe.
A couple weeks ago, a group from Korea visited to learn more about the company’s oleander plants and how the leaves are harvested and compounds extracted for use in topical skin products along with a aloe vera extract.
CEO Dennis Knocke said he’s a little embarrassed to admit their first product was an anti-aging night cream because he believes the oleander extract has the potential to do more than prevent signs of aging.
These beauty products were sold as NeriumRX and NeriumAD, and are now sold as PURENerium through a company called PURE Gen Holdings, Inc.
A Google search brings up claims that products containing the oleander extract are toxic or ineffective, but Knocke insists the product is safe. “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, that’s for sure,” he said.
The company — which had been in embroiled for year in a lawsuit with a co-founder but settled the dispute in August — has started manufacturing products to treat cold sores and psoriasis as well as a spray it claims can instantly relieve shingles and other skin conditions. “It’s just hitting the market now,” Knocke said, adding that Nerium Biotechnology is also developing an over-the-counter acne treatment.
In addition, Knocke, initially an investor in the company, said the company is looking into whether an oleander extract called Anvirzel could eventually be used in anti-cancer treatments.
The farm could hold the title of world’s largest Nerium oleander farm, said CEO Dennis Knocke, but he’s hesitant to pay the hefty fee to be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Overlooking a valley between lush green fields, Curtis said he shows it off like it’s his own backyard.
“We’ve taken something that’s been here forever,” he said. “This shrub that hadn’t been used for anything really, and turned it into something that’s good for society.”
The Medina County farmer said he started the oleander farm about 21 years ago. He said at the time he was a major supplier of figs to H-E-B and pecans to Buc-ee’s. He also developed and sold a business that serviced grease traps for area restaurants, and had a career in sales management for Terminix.
Curtis said he and several of his family members, along with migrant workers from Mexico, made a crew of about 50 people who worked the farm. Early on, they clipped the oleander leaves by hand because equipment to harvest them didn’t exist.
They designed a unique closed-loop irrigation drip system to keep the plants hydrated, borrowing the technology from a farm in Isreal.
The company eventually partnered with a Hondo family business called Medina Agriculture Products, Co. to build a harvester, modifying a John Deere tractor. They also developed computerized machinery to fit their needs.
Stuart Franke, owner of Medina Agriculture Products, said they process the oleander leaves by finely grinding and freezing the biomass in 10-kilo bags before storing. The shelf life is between five and six years.
“Because no one had ever done it before, we made a lot of mistakes,” Curtis recalls. “You learn something every week in these fields.”
Laura Garcia covers the health care industry in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her stories and more local coverage on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Reporter_Laura
Laura Garcia is a business reporter covering health care and insurance at the San Antonio Express-News. She is also incoming treasurer of the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Before she joined the Express-News, she was a features editor at the Victoria Advocate. She was part of an investigative reporting team on a series called “Understanding Harvey.” The coverage focused on a community recovering from Hurricane Harvey and won a national Society of Professional Journalists award for public service.
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Her work has been published in The Roanoke Times in Virginia, Corpus Christi Caller-Times and the Longview News-Journal. She graduated with journalism degrees from San Antonio College and Texas State University-San Marcos.
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