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Sally Cunningham: Give the gift of beauty

A man walks into a garden center. It’s Dec. 24. He asks the sales person, “What should I get for my … ?” Here the story can go several ways. The gift could be for (a) his wife because he is late (again), (b) a dinner party, (c) his mother in the senior residence, (d) his tennis partner who gardens, or (e) his niece the new chef. He doesn’t know anything about plants, and he’s out of time.

This started out sounding like a joke, but it isn’t one. Many shoppers have no idea what plant to give.

In the garden center the plants are displayed beautifully – but it’s daunting. They are not self-explanatory. Meanwhile the garden center workers are running around as fast as they can to keep the shelves and plant benches stocked, while trying to answer customers’ questions. Or they’re wrapping gift plants for people who seem to know what they’re buying.

Our guy doesn’t want to Google information about these plants, and he doesn’t want to choose a plant that the recipient dislikes, has four of already, that is tacky, or that will make the cat or kids sick. Let’s help him.

But first an alert: Don’t kill plants in your car. Wrap them in plastic and move them in and out of the car quickly.

For a special person

Gift certificate, anyone? That’s usually much appreciated, especially if you were sensitive enough to go to his/her favorite shop. Consider attaching the certificate to a decorated holiday arrangement that combines mixed plants, a beautiful bowl or container, and possibly baubles or ornaments worth keeping. If your person is into fairies, cats, dogs or birds and the arrangement has a theme, it’s a winner.

For the dinner party

Cut flowers are classic gifts, but I find it disconcerting to receive them when I’m busy with guests or food. (Flowers should have fresh cut stems, fresh water, and go into a vase immediately.)

A plant requires no immediate attention except to get in from the cold. Poinsettias are classics of the season, unless you already know your host has decorated with dozens of them. Consider the newest, differently patterned poinsettia. An amaryllis that’s about to bloom, or a pretty holiday arrangement, is a good gift. If you’ve seen no wreath on the door, take one of those, along with a wreath hanger.

If your host is a plant lover of indoor or outdoor plants, a gift of a beautiful pot or container will be long remembered, preferably with a gift plant in it. Antiques stores are sometimes sources of valuable “cache pots.”

What not to give? If the household has cats, puppies or little children, avoid plants or arrangements with berries (especially mistletoe, holly or juniper berries). Poinsettias are good – not poisonous. Avoid any kind of lily, as they cause kidney damage in cats. I’ve never seen or heard of a problem from pets chewing on amaryllis and cyclamen, but they are listed among the many houseplants that have some toxicity.

For nursing or residential home

The best gift is always your time and love. The second best gift is something you know she always loved, that triggers good memories, that she used to grow. Begonias can be great choices as they do well with light watering, and accept lower light and higher heat. The so-called “gift hydrangea” – because they usually aren’t successful as shrubs in WNY – is a spectacular gift even if it’s not forever.

Fragrant gifts are pleasing for people who are mostly closed indoors – lavender, plectranthus or licorice plants helichrysum. Many herbs are lovely to have nearby. When you shop, it’s OK to brush or squeeze a couple of leaves and smell your fingers. You’ll know what’s pleasant to have next to the bed.

Be realistic about conditions in most facilities. It is too warm and dry to expect a long and healthy life for most plants. Poinsettias will drop leaves if they are hot and dry. Cyclamen especially require cool conditions – ideally 60 degrees at night. If Mom or Dad is a plant person, choose old-fashioned, low-maintenance houseplants such as kangaroo vine, grape ivy, snake plants or another nice foliage plant. If you have a long-term resident who is into plants, commit to repeating the gift: Bring in new plants and rotate others out of her room regularly.

For the gardener

Back to that gift certificate idea: It’s fun to daydream about plant shopping in spring. Perhaps give a book on native plants (or other relevant topic) go with it. Our befuddled shopper would be a winner if he would just grab high-quality garden gloves, excellent pruners or a new sharp shovel.

But plants rule, especially if they are beautiful now and can be enjoyed for several years. Amaryllis bulbs are like that. The hellebore (Helleborus, also called Lenten or Christmas Rose, is a true, hardy perennial that has been forced to bloom early for a December show in the garden center. Hellebores are beautiful on the table or sideboard but will then keep (in a cool location) until planting time in spring. As a perennial they are good for decades (shade tolerant and deer resistant). Succulents are also popular, with many design uses.

For the chef

Many garden centers still have an herb section, and you can’t lose by giving any cook a few small herb plants. If our shopper knows his friend has an herb garden, then sharp flower scissors (such as Joyce Chen) are a thoughtful gift. A rosemary plant is tempting, especially during holidays when they are shaped to be tiny topiaries or trees with twisted stems. It doesn’t like rooms much warmer than 65 degrees, and it requires humidity. An attached cold porch (not frozen) could be right.

When that man walks into a garden center, he’s supporting local, small business. And he’s probably choosing something that’s alive, beautiful, and a gift that increases the oxygen in the room.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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