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Holiday gifts that grow

Christmas cactuses are a favorite party gift for the holidays from Kings Nursery in Santa Rosa.

JOHN BURGESS / PD
Published: Friday, December 14, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 10:54 p.m.

It has become the fallback plant for Christmas.

Facts

MORE PLANTS FOR GIFTS AND DECOR

Norfolk Island Pine: Native to an island in the South Pacific, these are popular indoor trees that can reach 80 feet in their natural habitat but stay smaller if left in a container in your home. They like warmer temperatures and are popular as Christmas trees in Hawaii. A lot of people in the U.S. like to use them as living Christmas trees. But if you decorate them make sure the soil is moist since electric lights have a drying effect on plants. Mist your tree daily or provide additional humidity.
Anthurium: This dramatic looking tropical flower comes in many colors. But at Christmas, red varieties are most festive. Anthurium makes a good alternative to the poinsettia.
Cyclamen: These spritely little bloomers that grow from a tuber are frequently forced to bloom for Christmas. They come in white, red and pink and are sweet in colored bowls or indoor arrangements.
Topiaries: Before the poinsettia became the go-to plant for Christmas, there was the traditional holly and ivy, as immortalized in carols, stories and paintings. Ivy at Christmas can be found in tabletop topiaries, dressed up with a red ribbon. Ditto for the herb topiaries found at this time of year. Place them in a pot with an appropriate seasonal design or color and you have a great decoration or gift.

Pretty but perhaps too common, the poinsettia's bright red or cream-colored bracts are festive in December, but its close association with Christmas makes it not a good plant to lift your spirits through the rest of the winter weeks.

There are other plants that will dazzle your indoor landscape during the holidays and have a longer pot life in the house. A nice plant also makes a great gift with universal appeal that most likely won't be returned.

“Folks seem much more willing than they did in the past to substitute different plants,” said Cindy Stewart, co-manager of King's Nursery in Santa Rosa.

One of the most lovely alternative Christmas plants is the Paperwhite narcissus — classy, delicate little blooms that can easily be forced to flower for the holidays. And forcing them is “super easy,” Stewart said.

“They are the fastest narcissus we have and one of the most reliable,” she added.

Grown outside, the cold will slow them down. But bringing them indoors will force the growth, usually in three to five weeks. You can buy them already blooming or force your own as gifts. Even if they're not flowering by Christmas, they will be sprouting and will soon bring a dollop of cheer during the January doldrums.

Choose a container that will hold water. Clear vases and bowls are elegant for Christmas and also give you a window onto nature's magic. But you can even grow them in Mason jars. You don't need any soil. Fill the container with rocks, marbles, sea glass or smooth stones, anything that is non-absorbent and will essentially hold the bulb in place and keep the plant upright.

Fill the container with water just to the bottom of the bulb. It doesn't rely on heat or sun. Just sit back and watch it grow.

Another increasingly popular holiday plant is Amaryllis. These are also easy to grow yourself, by bulb. They are winter bloomers, so they can be purchased in bloom now. But many people like to give the bulbs as a gift, Stewart said. The most popular colors are red and white. And since they naturally start blooming in late December, Amaryllis has gained a reputation as a holiday plant. You can also find them with red and white mixed on the same flower, or white with a pink blush. Just plant the onion-sized bulb in soil with its shoulder sticking halfway up. Treat it like a regular houseplant, said Stewart, and water weekly. They like bright light but don't need direct sun.

The Zygo cactus, or the “Christmas cactus,” makes a wonderful little hostess gift or small offering. With their electric-bright flowers that pop out of the tips around December, they are particularly attractive but also inexpensive. You can find them in bloom for under $10. They can last a lifetime and produce endless additional plants with cuttings.

For something a little more spectacular, Camellias are coming into bloom. Just in time for Christmas is “Yuletide,” with bright red flowers and yellow centers. Stewart said you can safely keep them inside for several weeks to enjoy as part of your holiday decor. Simply water them as you would a houseplant. This shade-loving plant can then be planted in shade and will bloom through January.

Carol Mitchel, the owner of Grow Gardens in Sebastopol, recommends Euphorbia “Diamond Frost” or Euphorbia “Silver Thaw” for something different. With its delicate clouds of airy white flowers, it will add charm to a colored bowl. It's a fool-proof plant even for those on your list lacking a green thumb. Heat-tolerant and adaptable as a houseplant, Real Simple Magazine crowned it one of their Top Ten Goofproof Plants.

Primroses are also pretty at this time of year and bring seasonal color indoors or out. The Fairy Primroses range from red to blue, pink and white. The English Primrose comes in all those same colors as well as yellow and orange.

“You can use them in a centerpiece or put them in a mixed bowl or basket,” Mitchel said. “You can even combine them with nice herbs like rosemary, which is blooming now.”

And the bonus? They'll keep blooming all winter.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

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