By Norman C. Bezona
University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
Christmas shopping for family and friends was cut short this year by a late Thanksgiving, but don’t despair! It is only 10 more shopping days, so let’s get started with creative ideas.
The holidays are a great time to get into gardening projects, and taking care of gifts for those folks who have almost everything. Plants make the perfect gifts for those special friends and relatives. Also, puttering in the garden will lower your blood pressure and help give you gift ideas.
To avoid the holiday headaches, enjoy your Christmas shopping by being different. Stop by a few of the local nurseries, garden and flower shops. You would be surprised at how many different plants make Christmas gifts. With a little love and attention, you can give a gift that really has some meaning.
All the foliage plants may be spruced up with a bright red ribbon, but some plants are more in keeping with the holidays than others. In giving living plants, use your imagination with the containers, decorations and wrapping. You can put more love into this type of gift than most other types, unless you consider handmade bedspreads, homemade cookies and such. With all the holiday parties, folks are getting overrun with regifted cheap wine and fruit cakes, so living plants are a natural, since they may be enjoyed for years.
First and foremost, flowers are a natural. Poinsettias are traditional and may be planted in the garden after the holidays. Or how about the hibiscus with its red flowers and green foliage, the gardenia with white flowers and green leaves? Another gift that is a natural is one of the many Ixoras.
Ixora coccinea or “Flame of the Woods” may be used as a small shrub. A close relative that may be trained into a large shrub or small tree is Ixora macrothyrsa, also known as “King Ixora.” Here’s an ornamental addition to any home landscape. It’s ideal for a holiday gift with its bright red flowers and dark green foliage.
The fragrant Ixora hookerei, or “Sweet Ixora,” may be trained into a small tree that will grow to about 15 feet and is ideal for the small garden. If you want to keep it small, you must plant it in a container for the patio. The colors of green, red, white, gold, purple and blue are all associated with the holiday season, so you have a wonderful palette with which to play and Ixoras come in many colors.
A whole group of flowering shrubs available now is the tropical Vireya rhododendrons. They can be grown from sea level to at least 4,000 feet in elevation and vary from small shrubs to small trees, depending on species and varieties. Vireyas are native from the western Pacific, Taiwan, the Malay archipelago, New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines and northern Australia. There is a Vireya display garden at the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens, if you want to see some examples. We have a Hawaii Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, and, to get more information, you can check out their website at www.hawaiivireyaars.org. They grow well on the rainy east side of the island. We have also tried many species and hybrids in Kaloko Mauka, in Kona, where they do quite well.
Let’s not forget orchids and bromeliads as Christmas gifts. They are readily available at most garden shops and are easy to grow. Our local orchid clubs are happy to assist folks in the culture of these spectacular plants. You might even get the “orchid bug” and join the Orchid Society.
For a frosty effect, give the silver buttonwood, which will also form a shrub or small tree with blue-gray foliage. These trees will tolerate serious salt conditions and can grow where wind and salt spray are a problem. Another interesting foliage plant is the Snow Queen hibiscus, with its variegated white and green leaves and red flowers.
Many palms make great holiday gifts. The pygmy date palm would be very appropriate, since date palms are associated with Jesus’ birthplace. Palms with red and green foliage are appropriate, like the Latania, Sealing wax palm or Chambeyronia from New Caledonia. The latter has dark green leaves with bright red new leaves. Other palms include the Christmas berry palm (Veitchia merrilli)), also called the Manila palm, with its red fruit, and the Howea palm. Rhapis palms are hardy and will tolerate conditions in home and business settings. They make great gifts for your doctor, dentist or lawyer who has plastic plants in the office. I always ask myself the question: “Do I trust a doctor who cannot keep an office or house plant alive?” A great test plant is the Rhapis palm.
In getting your gifts ready, start with the right container. Wooden tubs are excellent, since wood prevents rapid drying out of the soil. Clay pots are fine and can be painted to blend with the colors in the home. Brass and copper are ideal for table and mantle arrangements. But, as these containers are usually small, pay careful attention to supplies of water and fertilizer. Too much or too little fertilizer can be fatal to the plant. Containers must have proper drainage so that plants don’t drown.
Soil is very important for house plants. Since they must survive on a very small amount, give them the best soil mixture available. There is no perfect mixture. However, a longtime favorite for many homeowners is a blend of one part peat and one part coarse garden soil and one part vermiculite or sponge rock. These may come already mixed for you at the garden supply store.
When choosing plants, consider the person who is receiving the gift. Select varieties that will withstand adverse growing conditions for the beginning gardener. Growing conditions like low light intensity, extremes of temperature, and dry air may be discouraging. To be satisfactory, plants must do more than merely survive. They must maintain an attractive appearance with a minimum of care. Air conditioning and gas appliances, as nice to have as they are, may be rough on house plants.
For problem interiors, consider tough plants Like bromeliads, monstera, philodendrons, and palms like Rhapis and Howea. These plants don’t seem to mind low light.
Plants that will grow in full sunlight include geraniums, petunias, crotons, ficus, succulents, cactus and many palms. For detailed information on palms, check out the International Palm Society website. We have an active chapter here on the Big Island. Many palm books are available at local garden centers and bookstores. These and general gardening books also make great Christmas gifts.