Ask Elaine: Best Indoor Plants for Gifts

‘Tis the season for snow, family, food, quiet reflection, personal peace and gift giving. I have lots of gardening friends and I am considering indoor plants as gifts. Do you have any ideas?


Dear Holly,

That is so nice of you to think of your friends, and the horticultural industry, for the winter holiday season. I have the following suggestions:
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  1. Poinsettia. No flower says Christmas like the beautiful poinsettia. The plant was discovered in Mexico by Joel Poinsett, a botanist and physician, in 1828. The colored parts of the plants are bracts (modified leaves) and are available in red, white, pink, yellow, burgundy, speckled or marbled. The true flowers are the yellow blooms in the center of the bracts. The plant is a member of the spurge family and may ooze a milky sap if a leaf or stem is broken. Some people experience a skin rash. The plant is not poisonous. If they’re keep in a cool spot (but out of drafts), poinsettias can last long past the holidays. Avoid temperatures over 70 degrees as the leaves may yellow and fall off. Give your plant bright, indirect light at least 6 hours a day. Water when the soil starts to feel dry. As with most houseplants, avoid overwatering, and drain the saucer, so the plants’ roots won’t rot. The procedure to get the plant to rebloom is quite demanding and involves cutting the plant back to 8 inches, moving and transplanting the poinsettia outdoors in summer, fertilizing every 3 weeks, pinching twice in summer and then bringing the plant back indoors before the autumn frost. Starting October 1, and for 8 to 10 weeks, the plant must be kept in total darkness for 14 continuous hours each night and get 6 to 8 hours of bright sunlight daily. The plant will come into full bloom November or December.
  2. Amaryllis. Buying a box with an amaryllis bulb is easy. Growing them and keeping them to bloom again may not be so easy. The directions on the box are usually very clear on how to get the plant to bloom. The secret to successfully growing amaryllis is to keep the plants actively growing after they have finished blooming. After the flowers have faded, cut them off to prevent seed formation. Do not remove the flower stalk until it has turned yellow; it will help manufacture food that will be stored in the bulb. If the bulb does not produce a flowering stalk the next blooming period, it has not stored enough nutrients during the post-blooming period. It is important that amaryllis receive plenty of bright sunlight after they have finished blooming so place it in the brightest possible location indoors. Water the plant from the top of the container thoroughly whenever the top 2 inches of the soil is dry to the touch. Empty any excess water that drains from the pot as wet soil will promote root and bulb rot. When all danger of frost is past, acclimate the plant to the outdoors by first placing it in shade or indirect light. Gradually move it to a bright area where it will receive full sun for at least 6 hours daily. Fertilize monthly with a balanced houseplant fertilizer. Amaryllis plants should be brought indoors before the first frost in the fall. To induce dormancy and therefore get the plant to bloom again, store the potted plant in a cool (50-55 degrees) dark place for 6 to 8 weeks and do not water. Do not remove the foliage until it has become dry and shriveled. Bring the potted plant into a well-lit, warm (70-75 degree) room and begin to water. Amaryllis plants bloom best when they are potbound so they will require repotting only every 3 or 4 years. The best time to repot them is after they have gone through a dormant period, and you are bringing them up from the basement to reflower. Follow the same potting procedure as with a newly purchased bulb.

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  1. Cyclamen. Florist’s cyclamen was introduced in Western Europe in the early 17th century. Cyclamen is a tuberous potted plant that flowers during the winter months. The flowers reflex back from the center and are available in single, double, fringed, crested and frilled forms. Cyclamen has a mounded growth habit with green foliage mottled with silver and ranges in size from 6 to 16 inches in height. Its heart-shaped leaves and blooms in shades of white, pink, rose, purple and red. Cyclamen prefer cool temperatures and bright indirect light. Ideal daytime temperatures are 60 to 65°F with night temperatures around 50°F. If temperatures reach above 70°F, buds will fail to develop. Avoid placing cyclamen plants near heat vents. Cyclamen prefer to be kept moist but not soggy. Water when the potting medium feels dry to the touch, and always water along the edge of the pot or from below to avoid causing the tuber to rot. With proper care cyclamen will continue blooming up to 4 weeks. Removal of spent flowers can also help to encourage more flowers to develop. In their native habitat cyclamen typically go dormant after flowering (coinciding with the Mediterranean’s dry season). As the plant goes dormant, leaves yellow and fall off so that energy can go into replenishing the tuberous root. Most people discard the plant at this point. It is very difficult in the home environment to re-bloom a compact, high quality cyclamen plant. Typically, light levels are not high enough in the home which results in weak plants with smaller blooms that are lighter in color and leaves that have elongated petioles. However, if you enjoy a challenge, it is possible to force cyclamen to bloom again. To encourage reblooming, keep the soil from completely drying out during the dormant period. Then, place the dormant cyclamen in a shady place until new leaves emerge. In mid-September, when new leaves start to grow, move the plant to a bright (full sun) location and water the soil thoroughly. Continue to water it regularly and fertilize it monthly with a liquid houseplant fertilizer. Keep the cyclamen in a location with 50 °F night temperatures and 60 to 65 °F day temperatures. With proper light, adequate moisture and cool temperatures, cyclamens will rebloom by mid-winter.
  2. Paperwhite narcissus. Here is another easy-to-purchase gift boxed bulb that makes a great gift. Paperwhite narcissus is one of the easiest bulbs to force for cut flowers or ornamental displays in the home from December to March. They are a form of daffodil that can be forced without a chilling period, unlike other spring-blooming bulbs like tulips and hyacinths. Clear directions are on the box To force paperwhites, fill a bulb pan with about one to two inches of potting soil, and then position the bulbs in the soil so they are nearly touching each other with pointed end up. Add enough potting soil so that only the top half of the bulbs remain exposed, then water well. Paperwhites can also be forced in shallow decorative containers with pebbles and water, or in water alone. Place the bulb pans or decorative containers in a cool (45 – 55°F) room with little or no light, to mimic being planted outside, underground. When the shoots are one to two inches tall, move the pots to a warmer location with bright indirect light. Bulbs started in a warm room have a tendency to become leggy and flop over. No fertilizer is needed to force paperwhites. Paperwhites bloom four to eight weeks after potting. For a continuous show of color, start new pots of bulbs every couple of weeks throughout fall and winter. They bloom only once, so discard bulbs after they have flowered. Flowers will last longer in rooms at 65 – 70°F.

I hope that your holidays are merry and bright, with laughter, treasured memories and stories, and the comfort of home.

All the best,

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