‘Tis the season for giving, and once this season ‘tis over, ‘tis another one right around the corner. The pressure is on to find the perfect gift, and if you’re a gardener, the temptation is high to indulge in the oft-touted ‘perfect pairing’ of plants and gift giving, and get through that list as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Think again.


gifts under tree at Longwood

Longwood Christmas 2022


Unlike an ugly sweater or a Thigh Master which can be thrown into a cupboard and forgotten until the next Goodwill run or therapist’s appointment, plants must be cared for.  The act of caring for that plant takes energy, and if the recipient is ambivalent about the plant or simply doesn’t have time, the chances are that the plant – ripped from a loving greenhouse and weekly fertilizer infusions – will die.  

February is already depressing enough without a half-dead, once-gorgeous, container combination obligation sitting on a messy kitchen counter – and a friend who’s asking about it whenever they see you.

From Christmas cacti to Mother’s Day roses – when we give a plant, we give an obligation. I think it’s important to recognize this premise so we can successfully match the obligation to the recipient, and nurture (not napalm) a burgeoning interest in horticulture.

Here are a few thoughts/options:

Mark Special Occasions with Flowers, Not Plants

This might sound like heresy coming from the lips of a gardener who loves getting plants as gifts, but for most people, flowers might be better. The gift of a floral arrangement (particularly with specially chosen, local-florist, seasonal favorites, or an arrangement from your own garden) is not only a wonderful surprise, it’s universally understood to require nothing of the recipient besides a massive smile and perhaps a well-bred thank-you-note.

Unless the recipient is a gardener (as in, ‘I garden, I am’), or specifically asks for it, do not give them a special or symbolic plant during a life-changing event such as a move, a birth, a marriage or a promotion, which by its very nature changes their lives.


ornaments on tree at Longwood

Longwood Christmas, 2022


If you absolutely must, give a grocery store plant arrangement and make sure they know that you hope it will last a little longer than a floral arrangement, but not by much.  If you still insist on giving something a bit more personal and/or symbolic, that’s on you. Hand it over and never ask about it again. Ever.

Seriously. Ever.

Open Up a Bigger World

If subtle, painless evangelization cloaked in gift-giving is your game, and your target is a new gardener, a plant may not be the best way to go. Get the juices flowing first. Give the gift of a membership to a botanical garden, or a series of incredible lectures, or a sumptuous print or digital magazine.  Membership with The American Horticultural Society can give them all three (says their shameless opinion columnist).

Don’t Set Them Up for Failure

In a moment of 11th hour desperation during the holiday season, where you’re either grabbing a plant or grabbing bath salts; at the very least, choose a plant whose future existence does not depend on a fair amount of horticultural know-how, i.e., devil’s ivy over maiden-hair ferns.  You may not give a damn if it lives or dies, but a prolonged death scene could be the final straw for a friend who had hoped that this time – just this one time – she could keep something green alive.


presents under tree at Longwood Gardens

Longwood Christmas, 2022


Help Them Succeed – By Force

If you wish to encourage a young, beginning gardener with a very special plant that will flood them with memories of your fabulous personality for the rest of their lives; the best course of action is to hand it to them, humbly accept their joyful squeals, then smile gently and say “Let me help you plant it in the right place for your garden.”


“In fact, let’s do that right now.”

Save this one for a holiday where the ground isn’t frozen.

Give Them a Choice…And The Gift of Time

A last, excellent option is to find a local nursery, buy a gift certificate and allow the recipient to choose his or her own beautiful obligations according to his or her own schedule, skill-level, and tolerance for pain – a win-win for everyone involved.  You support a local nursery and give your friend lots of options.

Fellow Gardeners Are Different

Now of course, if you’re giving a plant to a hardcore gardener, none of the above applies.  In fact, not only can you expect a status update on your gift, you can expect an accompanying report card of the plant’s strengths, failings, soil preferences and very possibly, a few pictures to prove how they have definitely grown it far better than you ever could. 

And if they lost it to fire, flood or neglect? There is rarely guilt in the voice of such gardeners – in fact, they can be downright belligerent when pressed, i.e. “That Manihot esculenta? Oh, I killed that. Could you pass the zinfandel?”


Fellow Ranter Anne says in her comments below, that she’s not so sure about this, as the ‘walk of shame around the garden looking for a possible hole is even worse if you didn’t actually fall in love with the plant you’re trying to place…..”, and I agree with this so much (and have experienced it so often), that I have to add it to the article in case you are not a comment reader and don’t see this bit of wisdom.  It may be therefore, that the offhanded are simply trying to play it cool in the face of shame and indignation.

I try to give plants to the hard-core matched to a specific request in the past (when a plant required more time before I could share it), though I have been known to desperately look around for something rare and wonderful and divisible when on my last-minute way to a fellow gardener and their garden.  Luckily for Anne, it’s illegal for me to bring something over to her when I visit next year. -MW


tree at longwood with gifts

Longwood Christmas, 2022