While no one leapt up from our Thanksgiving table to rush out to the pre-Black Friday sales, there was some desultory conversation involving gifts and shopping. I wish I could buy everyone on my list a live green or blooming plant to bring the outside in during the darkest days of the year, although I suspect grandchildren or college-age kids would be underwhelmed by such a gift. For all others, even a common poinsettia would probably be welcome, both for its association with the holiday season and its bright blossoms. There are other good choices for giving that are as low-maintenance as poinsettia and equally lovely for holiday decoration, plants that will last well into the new year.

I’m always a sucker for those inexpensive rosemary bushes that are clipped into a mini tree shape, making them an ideal tabletop or windowsill Christmas tree. You get a holiday decoration, fresh sprigs for cooking and, with luck, a plant to put outside in the garden come spring. Over the years I’ve had varying degrees of success keeping these baby trees alive. Despite your best efforts, whatever conditions the plant experienced before coming home with you — underwatered or soaked, and trimmed within an inch of its life — probably sealed its fate. But do your best to make a good selection, keep it warm on the trip home so that freezing doesn’t add to its misery, and strip the water-trapping foil wrapper from the pot. If your plants are in plastic pots, resist the urge to repot them into a prettier one; rosemary doesn’t like to be repotted until it is root-bound. Slip the plastic pot inside a larger clay or pottery planter or, to wrap it for a gift, take some gilt-edged filmy Christmas ribbon and wind it around the pot, bottom to top, ending with a big cheerful bow.

Rosemary plants prefer a bright, sunny location, needing around six hours of light bright enough to cast a shadow on the floor when you hold your hand in the sun. If you have a sunny kitchen, why not use the tree as decoration there, rather than on the sunless mantle or dark dining room table? Water your little trees once a week, and mist often.

Cyclamen is another plant that is perfect for Christmas giving. Short but sweet, with blossoms that resemble umbrellas turned inside out by the wind, they bloom through winter well into March, in shades of lavender, purple, pink, white, red and rose. Some sport variegated foliage with silver veining. Most cyclamen are virtually scentless, but if you don’t mind looking foolish, you can sniff around until you find one with the sweet scent of spring. Cyclamen are like little jewels when presented in glazed pots, or you can up the wow factor by grouping a trio of white cyclamen in a basket, adding twigs or pine branches.Whatever the presentation, provide them with indirect sunlight in a bright, cool location; these cool-season plants tolerate temperatures into the 40s, which is why they’re popular in the winter months. Water when the soil’s surface is dry.







Orchids, which once seemed very exotic, are now commonly available all year round. You can pick one up along with your groceries at many a supermarket. A potted Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, makes a perfect Christmas gift. With a delicate appearance that belies its low-maintenance character, a moth orchid is the easiest of all orchids to grow indoors; it’s also the longest-flowering variety, with months of blooms. With reasonable care, these orchids can live for years. Many of these orchids come potted in classic zinc cylinders or white ceramic pots, needing only a gift ribbon and card, but, as with cyclamen, grouping several white moth orchids in a basket or tin container along with greenery makes a striking holiday presentation.

Moth orchids prefer a warm location and indirect, bright light. Water them thoroughly when the surface feels dry to the touch. Most orchids come already planted in bark or sphagnum moss; both materials need to dry out between waterings. Never let orchid roots stand in water.

If you know someone in need of a stand-in Christmas tree, or need one yourself, the cute little Norfolk pines that flood the market during the holidays fill the bill and make a nice statement houseplant afterwards. Giving a plant that’s a bit larger than an orchid, one that also demands some care, is a bit like giving someone a puppy, but a flourishing Norfolk pine can add a big hit of living greenery to an otherwise plant-free environment.

The downside is, because they are not true pines, but are actually a tropical plant, Norfolk pines need to be treated more like a gardenia or orchid than a pine tree.They cannot tolerate temperatures below 35 degrees, and they need to be kept away from cold drafts. Norfolk pines need bright light but never full sun. If possible, place your tree within four feet of a large south-facing window. Norfolks can actually survive with only household incandescent or fluorescent lighting if they receive a minimum of 16 hours of light each day, which is why you may find them lurking in the corner of your accountant or dentist’s office. This level of light may keep the plant alive for a year or two, but its health will ultimately decline; there’s no substitute for bright, natural light. Turn your Norfolk Island Pine frequently to keep it symmetrical.

Perhaps most important, as they are tropical in origin, Norfolk pines need high humidity. Keep humidity high by either setting the tree in a pebble tray with water, using a humidifier in the room or by weekly misting. Water your pine when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch. It is normal for Norfolk pine trees to have some browning on the bottom branches, but if the brown branches seem to be high on the plant or if they occur all over the tree, this is a sign that the plant is either overwatered, underwatered or is not getting enough humidity. Confusing, yes, but not impossible to figure out with a little patience and some judicious adjustments. As for increasing humidity, we all would be healthier with some more moisture in the arid interior winter air.