A pot of poinsettias or a bouquet of fresh flowers make nice hostess and holiday gifts. But if you'd prefer to give something that can last for months or even years, consider one of my favorite houseplants. In addition to being long-lasting, they're all lovely and won't put too large a dent in your pocketbook.
Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is a natural choice for the holidays because it looks like a dainty Christmas tree. And it's easy to make this slow-growing plant look more festive by adding tiny ornaments, ribbons or bells. Norfolks are available in many sizes, including tabletop specimens that can double as a Christmas tree when space is an issue.
Norfolk Island pines can be very long-lived, except when grown in hot, dry conditions. And these plants are fairly forgiving. You can keep a Norfolk pine away from the windows for a week or so during the holidays and it won't show any ill effects. However, to keep this plant healthy for the long haul, you should move it to a brighter location near an east- or west-facing window, preferably in a cool room or at least a room where the temperature is allowed to drop at night.
Water it with room-temperature water whenever the soil surface feels dry to the touch. There's no need to fertilize until spring. To keep the plant symmetrical, rotate the pot a quarter-turn every few weeks.
English ivy (Hedera helix) is another houseplant that lends itself to the holidays, especially when its long trailing stems are draped like garlands. This exceptionally easy-care plant, which thrives under the same conditions as Norfolk Island pine, can last for years. In hot, dry conditions, however, English ivies are prone to spider mite infestations. (That's why it's important to inspect the undersides of ivy leaves regularly for the fine webbing or tiny pin-prick discolorations that signal the presence of mites. Caught early, they're much easier to control.)
If you keep your home on the toasty side in winter, Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis) is a better choice, provided you can find one. This ivy has larger leaves than the English ivy and is faster-growing. More important, it does well in warmer conditions. There's a variegated green and white version that's particularly handsome.
A moth orchid (Phalaenopsis species) is the gift that keeps on giving because its flowers last for weeks, sometimes months. The flowers look like fanciful moths (hence the name) and come in shades of lavender, winter white, pale pink or yellow. Some have darker colored veins, others are bi-colored. Because they've become so popular at the holidays, you can find moth orchids at garden centers, grocery stores, even big-box home supply shops. Be sure to look for a plant with some flowers open and some still in bud.
Despite their delicate appearance, these plants are pretty tough. And, despite what you may have heard, it's not hard to get them to bloom year after year. In winter, moth orchids need to be close enough to a window to receive some direct sun every day. They do best with filtered sun the rest of the year. With their thick, succulent leaves, they typically need to be watered just once a week.
There is one downside: When they're not in bloom, they aren't particularly attractive plants. So tuck them in among your better looking houseplants until you see a new flower stem snaking out from between the leaves.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum species) should be on everybody's wish list. These no-fail bulbs produce gigantic, exotic blossoms that rival those in any bouquet -- and will bloom every year when well cared for. You can pick up an individual bulb or buy several to plant in an attractive container. If you don't want to do it yourself, select a bulb that's already potted and ready to bloom.
After it's done blooming, pull out the yellowed, wilted flower stalk but leave the leaves in place. Keep the plant in a sunny window until summer, then take it outdoors. Water when the soil feels dry and begin regular fertilizing in spring. If you want it to bloom for the holidays, move it to a cool, dark spot and let it go "dormant" for a few months in fall. If you don't care when it blooms, keep the plant in a bright window year-round. It should develop flowers in March or April.
Deb Brown is a garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-7793 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.