Giving a gift that will stand the test of time is always a challenge, but giving plants is one way to try. Whatever type of plant you choose, it's sure to last longer than cut flowers will, and often costs the same (or less) than a nice arrangement from the florist. In fact, many houseplants can cost in the $15-$20 range, while a large bouquet is often twice that.
If you have a plant-interested giftee on your list, some of the ideas below will help you on your way — consider giving a nice pot (bigger than the plastic pot the plant comes in) and bag of soil as a way to ensure your gift gets a good start in life. Or maybe a primer on plants and how to care for them, like "How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart," by Summer Rayne Oakes. (Disclosure: A plant-lover myself, I helped edit this book.)
The most important thing to consider when giving a plant as a gift is where it will live; if you know that your friend's place is really bright and sunny, and she likes to keep the heat going all winter (meaning it's generally dry), then a plant that naturally grows in that environment makes the most sense — like a succulent. If the person you're gifting has a cool home with a couple bright windows, but no direct sun, an orchid is probably a better choice. Succulents naturally grow in desert-like environments, and orchids grow in damp forests.
As Oakes writes, "Even if a houseplant was born, cultivated, or propagated in a nursery or greenhouse setting, it is still a species that once lived trailing, winding, or vining across a woodland clearing, clinging to rock outcrops or desert landscapes, or maybe even soaring high on branches in the forest canopy. Knowing the natural history of a plant is important, as it can help you understand what conditions it prefers and even why it grows the way it grows." So, while you're picking out plant gifts, ask the salesperson at the plant store for more information, which will help ensure that you choose a plant that's a decent match for where it will end up. Of course, providing a little info with the plant — its name and details about what it needs — is a great way to help the plant in its new abode.
Here are a few ideas to get you started; all of these plants are fairly easy to keep alive and look lovely. You don't need to wrap them, a simple bow is enough, or you can always put them inside a paper bag with a bow on the top if you want to keep the gift under wraps.
Thanksgiving (or Christmas) cactus
This is one of those plants that's available widely, especially during the holiday season because it blooms at or around the Thanksgiving to Christmas season. (Mine usually bloom at Thanksgiving and then have another mini-bloom a couple weeks later.) Technically a succulent, this plant needs a bright (but not hot) window to live in — it definitely needs a fair amount of light, but likes to stay relatively cool at the same time. So a window that's not near or above a heater is ideal. Because it's a succulent, it doesn't need constant watering, though it likes a bit more water just before it blooms and during the time it flowers.
Another type of succulent, these need a fair amount of light, but they definitely want to dry out between waterings. Their thick-skinned leaves mean the plant is able to store plenty of water, so the danger with these is over-watering, which can make them soggy and waterlogged. Jade plants don't flower, but they have a lovely bonsai-tree-like effect that's pleasing. They can grow quickly if they live in a spot that's good for them, but pruning them is easy and instructions are available online.
Even though they have a deserved reputation for being temperamental, orchids can do just fine inside your home. (Photo: Roger Mommaerts [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
These gorgeous plants aren't as difficult to care for as many people think; those available commercially have been bred to be relatively hardy. They don't need to be kept at tropical temperatures by any means (and in fact, orchids' natural habitat is in the breezy and cool-at-night elevated habitat of upper tree branches, where they often grow in the y between two branches). So keeping one alive throughout it's naturally long blooming cycle, when most of them are sold, is fairly easy. A half-cup of water once a week or so is plenty; their strange roots like to keep moist, but not wet.
They need some light, but it can be relatively indirect (no direct sun). Blooms can last three months or longer, but most of those plants in stores right now are already flowering — look for a plant that has one or two more blooms that haven't opened yet to get the most bloom-time. An orchid will bloom about once a year, but getting them to bloom again is the trickier part — but it isn't that hard. MNN's Tom Oder explains how to grow and rebloom orchids at home, but there are also plenty of good orchid-care blogs and videos online.
Paperwhites are an ideal gift for someone who isn't interested in keeping a plant long-term. In addition, these will still last a lot longer than cut flowers. These pretty, lightly scented flowers come from bulbs that are planted in all kinds of shallow media (pebbles or earth, depending on the look you're going for) and "forced" to bloom out of season. Their bulbs/roots need to be kept relatively damp, but once they are blooming, they'll do alright as long as they have some light. And if you or your giftee are so inclined, these bulbs can be replanted in the ground after they have run their course — though due to the stress of forcing some may die.
Bird's nest fern (Asplenium nidus)
All ferns need moisture (think about where you see them growing — usually near streams or damp spots), but some are more forgiving than others. The bird's nest fern is one of those that tends to be a bit hardier, though it does still need attention in that area. Ideally, you should mist these once a week or so, more if it's in the warm dry air of winter. Or, you can do what I do: pop the plant in the kitchen sink and give it a gentle spray with the sink hose. If you give it a good soak, you can get the leaves all wet as well as water the fern. They love this "whole plant soaking" which you can also do in the shower with a couple plants if your spray nozzle is gentle enough. Ferns need some indirect light, but since they typically thrive on forest floors, they don't typically need a lot of direct sun. (Some is OK, and their leaves will lighten in response, or darken in a less sunny spot.)
Norfolk Island pine
These plants are an ideal holiday gift since they can be used as a Christmas tree; you can add a string of lights, and there's plenty of space to hang pretty ornaments that are relatively light. Once the season is over, they are a pretty, soft-needled evergreen. It's important to note that though these look like a pine tree, they are actually native to tropical areas and won't survive outdoors in cold places. These aren't the easiest plants on the list to keep, but they're not that hard. They need a fair amount of light, and plenty of water (again, they're from the tropics, so they like to be damp). Norfolk Island pines don't like dry air or blowing air, which will dry them out, so keep them away from vents.
Cornstalk Dracaena (Dracaena fragrans)
For a relatively dark spot (yes, you do still need some natural light, but not a lot, and certainly no direct light is necessary), this is a forgiving plant. Dracaena come in a number of varieties and the leaves can display thin or thick stripes of white, yellow, bright green and dark green. They like to dry out between waterings, but you need to keep them relatively damp. They are, like so many of the houseplants on this list, tropical, and these come from Africa originally. If they get more sun, their leaves will adjust to be lighter green or their lighter color stripes will widen to reflect light; if you keep them in a darker spot, their leaves will be darker — the better to absorb whatever light they can find.
Whatever kind of plant you choose to give, make peace with the fact that it may or may not survive. Even relatively experienced green thumbs like myself sometimes lose plants. It's worth remembering that, as Oakes points out in her book, all plants are prisoners of war inside our homes — a house's interior is pretty dissimilar to where that plant evolved over the last 50,000 years. So we can all only do our best. The key is to pay attention to plants — really look at them each day or so. If their leaves dry up at the end, they're not getting enough water. If they're reaching their little leaves toward the light, they may need more of it. So offer that advice to your giftee, and then let it go.
A plant is always a wonderful gift, especially in the dark and dreary days of winter, if for no other reason than it will remind us that spring, with all its natural green abundance, isn't that far off.