The best plants to give during the holidays

by Ellen Goff

The holidays are here, and since Southerners can't rely on the arrival of snow to arouse the holiday spirit in us, we count on other traditions to put us in a merry mood. However for some, this can be a merry rut!

For example, when it comes to selecting gifts, especially blooming plants, it can be hard to think beyond traditional, predictable and boring choices. There are times when I think if I see one more red poinsettia, I'll blindfold myself for the month of December. I admit this is personal bias, fair or not. To me, these plants are the fruitcake of the greenhouse.

My opinion of poinsettias aside, don't abandon holiday plant gift ideas completely. After all, they're environmentally green, on a certain level. Anything flowering is universally popular. Party hosts welcome blooming plants to supplement cut flower arrangements. Another choice might be a pair of short, potted evergreens. Two of anything make an elegant statement, and have a stronger effect than a single, larger plant that may not work with all interiors.

Gift plants that are outside the norm vary throughout the Southeast. Residents of Florida may not get the same thrill from a poinsettia when they grow like weeds outside.

"I've had people buy the oddest things for gifts," says Walt Mathews, owner of highly rated Earl's Garden Shop & Nursery in Tampa Bay, Fla..

After 65 years in business, the Mathews family has seen holiday trends come and go. Walt and his father, Earl, have customers who garden year-round and choose plants that appeal to the garden instead of the calendar.

"People do want poinsettias for Christmas, but we also sell a lot of red and white hanging geraniums and impatiens for the holidays," he says. "You don't see them up north this time of year. Small citrus trees are in demand as well, mainly Meyer lemon, Key lime and Persian lime."

Julian Urbina, owner of highly rated Exotica Inc., in St. Petersburg, Fla., has a different take on December gift giving. Specializing in succulents and tropicals, she says her customers like her nursery's large selection of plants in different sizes, colors and textures. "I've never had anyone ask for a poinsettia."

When customers ask Rosemary Bathurst of highly rated Ashe-Simpson Garden Center in Atlanta for holiday gift suggestions, she recommends unusual options first.

"Bromeliads add color and last a long time," she says. "Amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs (Narcissus) are distinctive and easy to care for, and can then be planted outside." But she also says the majority of her customers have a classic sensibility. "Our clients are traditional and want poinsettias for Christmas."

Farther north in Charlotte, N.C., the classic holiday standards remain as strong as in Atlanta.

"This is a pretty traditional town," says Debby Sacra of highly rated The Blossom Shop. "We probably sell more poinsettias than anything." But she has some customers who are looking for a plant with a little more style, subtlety and elegance. "Phalaenopsis orchids, white hydrangeas and European plant baskets are definitely attracting more interest," she says.

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.


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