Diarmuid Gavin: Houseplants are the gift that keeps on giving. They make people feel special
There can be nothing nicer than gardening gifts, especially interesting or flowering plants, as Christmas presents. It’s a surefire way to a loved one’s heart (or a fail-safe reserve present for someone you may have forgotten!). An industry has evolved out of making sure a huge range of bright-looking or sweetly scented plants are at peak performance on December 25.
Plants as presents make people feel special. Amazingly, from the spotty teen with a newfound fondness for cacti through to your great-granny, there is something appropriate for everyone. Gift-wise, gardening can provide so many answers for the uninspired. So, to help with some of your last-minute festive anxieties, here’s a guide to some plants that will make wonderful gifts, plus a few tips for their new owners on how to mind them.
Orchids always make a good present — I love the purple-spotted Phalaenopsis (below). It is also known as the moth orchid, as its elegant blooms look like beautiful butterflies in flight. This is a good gift for the beginner gardener, as this type of orchid is relatively easy to look after and will maintain its flowers for months. Mine always seem happy on a north-facing window with a weekly watering. When the flowers are finished, cut the stem back to above a node and in time you will get more flowers.
Medinilla ‘Dolce Vita’, the Philippine orchid, has dramatic pink dripping flowers and beautiful foliage. Found in the mountains of the Philippines, it’s an epiphyte that grows on trees but, unlike mistletoe, it isn’t a parasite and doesn’t draw nutrients from the tree. There was a Belgian king who loved them and grew them in the royal conservatories; he even went as far as to have them depicted on the 10,000 Belgian franc note. Place in a bright place at room temperature from March to November without direct sunlight, but in sunshine for the rest of the year and it can flower for three to five months.
Perfumes and candles are popular gifts at this time of year but you can also give the gift of scent with a plant. There’s no better smell on Christmas morning than hyacinth flowers. If you’ve been forcing hyacinth bulbs, they should be ready for planting up: put some in a simple wooden container and cover with moss. A trickier plant to manage is Stephanotis floribunda, the Madagascar jasmine, but it’s well worth it for the delicious fragrance. It likes high humidity so mist regularly and sit it on a gravel tray with water in summer. It doesn’t like to be too hot in winter: 13–15°C is about right, so a cool conservatory is better than a warm living room.
For the most delicious outdoor smell, it’s hard to beat Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Plant in sun or semi-shade, preferably near your front door so you will pass it when it’s in bloom in midwinter.
To make something personal and unique, find an interesting container or pot. Or brighten up an ordinary one with some spray gold or silver and plant up with your own combinations. Poinsettias (above) are always popular at Christmas, with their bracts as bright red as Santa’s hat. They hail from Mexico and like their surroundings warm and dry. They will get very upset in cold winds and shed their leaves in protest, even on the journey home from plant shop to house, so be sure to protect them. Position away from draughts in a warm, bright place, out of direct sunlight. Water when the surface of the compost feels dry.
For cooler spots like porches, cyclamen and Christmas azaleas are better choices. Indoor cyclamen can rot easily with overwatering — letting the compost dry out is less harmful than saturation. The opposite is true for azaleas, however: the foliage will start to go brown if they dry out, so water them regularly and, to maintain humidity, they are best kept on a pebble tray or misted at intervals.
If you’ve got a real Christmas tree, by now it may be starting to dry out. Maintaining a high moisture level in the tree is the single most important factor in reducing needle loss and keeping the tree fresh. Treat it like you would a cut flower — use a water-holding stand and maintain the water level in the stand above the base of the tree. Central heating will quickly dry out the tree so remember to keep the water levels topped up. Happy Christmas, everyone!
For something fun, here's two gifts in one: a watering can planted up with blue hyacinth bulbs, with bundles of cinnamon sticks to decorate. Don't let the soil dry out and keep it in the light.