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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Houseplants as gifts

A living plant can be a wonderful holiday gift whether it is chosen for its flowers or for its foliage. However, before you give a plant, think about the recipient. Will she accept the plant as a long-lived bouquet and then let it go to its eternal reward in the compost pile? After admiring the plant, will she feel overwhelmed by the necessity of caring for the plant? Will she weep because she wanted to keep it alive, but to no avail?

Many blooming houseplants are given with no expectation that they will be kept for another blooming season. Forced amaryllis and paper whites may be among this category. The amaryllis is a spectacular holiday plant with blossoms that comes in a range of shades from brilliant red to pink to white, and some with stripes. It is easy to find large prepared-and potted amaryllis bulbs online or in local garden centers. All you need to do is water the bulb well and then wait for growth to start. The recipient will only need to water the plant regularly and the reward will be large glamorous blooms that can last over a month.

Sun and cool temperatures, 55 to 65 degrees, will help produce sturdy flower stems, but the plant should be turned regularly so the plant is not always reaching in the same direction for sun.

Many people are perfectly happy to say goodbye to an amaryllis after it blooms, or pass it along to a friend who really wants to keep it going.

Less spectacular, but no less delightful, are forced daffodils (narcissus). It used to be that people were happy to half bury some paper whites in pebbles in a pretty shallow bowl that could hold some water and be stored in a cool basement while roots form. Nowadays, all manner of daffodils can be potted up from miniature brilliant yellow Tete-a-tetes, to the tall paper whites. They can be planted in planting mix along with a little bulb fertilizer. While they do need cool to cold temperatures to start root growth, they do not need basement darkness. Give them light. The soil should be kept moist.

Conventional wisdom says these forced bulbs will never bloom again, but if you, or the recipient, want to try to bring these forced bulbs into bloom again, the foliage should be left to ripen after the bloom period. Then in the spring, the yellowed foliage can be cut back and the bulbs can be planted in the garden with a little bone meal or bulb fertilizer. They may come back, or they may not. I have experienced both outcomes, but there is nothing to be lost.

I just bought myself the gift of a Jerusalem cherry for my bedroom because the red “cherries” make it look like a little Christmas tree. This plant, like the ornamental pepper, is an annual, just like the petunias we enjoy in their season. There is absolutely no expectation that it will have a life much beyond the holiday season. It can be tossed with no regrets. Be aware that the fruits are not edible and children should be warned.

The Jerusalem cherry is perfect for my bedroom because nighttime temperatures are very cool, down to 50 degrees. Ornamental peppers need warmer temperatures even at night, and both plants need at least four hours of bright sun.

Another plant that needs cool temperatures, preferably day and night, is the beautiful cyclamen, which is available in shades of red, pink and white. I keep cyclamen in my bedroom or the sitting room (where no one ever sits, but just passes through) because these rooms have bright sun, but are cool day and night. However, I do bring the pot of lovely blooms out into the living area when we have holiday guests. Short periods of warm temperatures will not shorten bloom time very much.

I have noticed that kalanchoe are beginning to appear at the supermarket as well as at the garden center. These easy-care succulents have thick, waxy foliage that stores water and makes them relatively drought resistant. The tiny flowers growing in little bunches in shades of red, orange and yellow. When choosing a gift kalanchoe, look for one that still has most of the flowers in bud and whose leaves are nice and plump, showing that it has been cared for properly in the nursery. They need at least four hours of sun and cool nighttime temperatures.

Of course, there is always the Christmas poinsettia in red, pink or white. Its blooms last for a very long time because the flowers are actually bracts. When they finally fade, I always just throw the plant on the compost pile. Easy enjoyment with no second thoughts. A good attitude for beginning the holiday season, I think.

A caveat to the plant gift giver: Do not give a cyclamen to a person who lives in an overheated apartment. The cyclamen will not thrive and will be a disappointment, if not a source of guilt for the recipient. Do consider the environment of the recipient. Many do not have control over temperatures, or require a very warm room.

Don’t give a plant that needs bright, sunless light like a gardenia to someone who only has bright sunny windows.

You could also consider giving a card with care information along with the plant.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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