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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: holiday gift plants

Flowering plants and cut flowers are popular gifts in all holiday seasons. No surprise there. But when do you think most gift plants and flowers are purchased? I would have answered Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day when spouses, kids, lovers and admirers besiege florist shops and garden centers (usually at the last minute). Since I’m asking this in mid-December however, you probably surmised: The Christmas and Hanukkah season wins over all over holiday periods for buying and giving cut flowers and gift plants. Thirty percent of Americans will purchase plants or flowers.

Next question: What do you think most people buy in the flower and plant world during this peak season?

According to the National Floral Association, 54 percent of the flower or plant shoppers buy fresh-cut flowers for entertaining or home decorating (in vases, arrangements, or centerpieces); 53 percent of the buyers also purchase red poinsettias. (People checked multiple categories.) The next largest number buy fresh flowers as gifts. After that all other categories trail behind, including flowering houseplants, tropical and foliage plants.

Clearly, among living plants, red poinsettias rule. We buy them for home and office; we give them as gifts.

Poinsettias come in many colors, so we might wonder why red is so dominant. Perhaps it’s partly because red is widely associated with Christmas – from Santa’s suit to wrapping paper. Or red is the color of love, as in red roses. I believe that the main reason is that we (or our parents) were conditioned: During the 1960s an effective marketing campaign showed red poinsettias all month on TV. A sea of red surrounded Johnny Carson, Huntley and Brinkley, and game show/talk show celebrities every year. We were hooked on red. Of poinsettias sold, 74 percent are red, 8 percent are white, 6 percent pink, followed by many lovely introductions with speckles, mottling, peach or wine colors.

Gift plant competition

While poinsettias claim the garden center spotlight, other plants have become staples for holiday decorating and gifts. Cyclamen, Christmas cacti, pots of amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs fill the benches, waiting to go home with you. Even grocery stores carry small Norfolk Island pines, usually with red bows on top.

Recent marketing campaigns have spurred newer plant trends that now have a firm hold. Among them are the perennial Helleborus, Christmas ferns (Polystichum) and miniature false cypress trees (Chamaecyparis). The white flowering hydrangea is a gorgeous tabletop gift plant but alas, most do not flower again once planted outside in our region. Orchids have become both more popular and more available; we have almost busted the myth that they’re fussy – just not true! And few holiday gifts are equally elegant.

The hottest of trends is anything to do with succulents, so expect to find them sprinkled with glitter, entwined with bows and arranged in holiday bowls. You might even find the Echeveria, a whorled, rose blossom-shaped darling that is actually named ‘Christmas.’ Succulents come with many color tones and they are great plants, even for beginners. You might make a succulent wall hanging in spring, so collect them now.

The best gift plant?

When you choose plants for other people, it isn’t about what you like (especially if you’re a gardener). Think about their abilities, house temperature, how much they entertain or decorate, and how much space they have. Do they have a yard or patio? Do they have grandchildren or pets that chew? (I am not a veterinarian but I have pet experience; if you think the cat ate something sickening see your vet.)

Here are my suggestions for which gifts work for which people:

• Poinsettia: Bright, cheering and seasonal, it’s good for almost everyone. It is not toxic to cats or kids, and that’s well proven by scientific sources. The receiver must be able to put it out of drafts and away from heat sources. If watered when dry and not left standing in its water, the poinsettia lasts a long time. Buy from local growers, please, both because it’s right to do so and because you’ll get the best tended and longest lasting plant.

• Amaryllis: A super gift in my opinion, whether already in flower or better yet just planted – it’s wonderful to watch it grow. Some people will re-flower it year after year. The bulb is very poisonous if the puppy chews it (although unlikely) and the leaves are poisonous for cats. I do not find cats to be interested, but watch it.

• Cyclamen: Gorgeous gift for a plant person. Specific requirements: It must be kept cool (below 65 degrees), kept in bright light and watered generously when dry but never over-watered. It’s not great for a hot office or senior residence. The tubers especially are poisonous for pets; don’t let kitties eat the leaves either.

• Christmas cactus: No reason not to own or give one. It’s tolerant of house temperatures and medium light; needs regular watering. Sometimes they drop buds if they’re moved around a lot, so put them in one spot and leave them.

• White flowered hydrangea: Lovely tabletop gift plant and great for a senior residence if they have space. May be toxic to pets. Might disappoint people who think they’re getting an outdoor flowering shrub.

• Helleborus: These stunningly beautiful plants are a great gift for a gardener: a long-lived perennial (deer-resistant, shade tolerant and somewhat expensive in gardening season). Just figure out where to keep them cool and semi-dormant until planting time in spring. (This advice applies to other outdoor plants that double for holiday decorations.)

• Norfolk Island pines: Easy houseplants that look like Christmas trees and can grow 5- or 6-feet tall in a few years – maybe good as somebody’s low-budget holiday tree.

So many other plants might be the right hostess or personal gift, but give them with instructions and check on toxicity. And when in doubt ... a red poinsettia, anyone?

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.