Choose Healthy Plants for Holiday Gifts

Careful selection of plant and pot will make for a gift that can continue giving throughout the year.

by Dani Yokhna
Choose healthy plants and an appropriate pot when gifting plants. Photo courtesy Carly Hennigan/Hemera/Thinkstock (
Courtesy Carly Hennigan/Hemera/Thinkstock

House plants make great holiday gifts, but gift givers should be careful to make sure their gift plant is healthy. Otherwise, that cheery poinsettia or fragrant lavender bush can turn into a pot full of heartache by mid-January.

Bodie Pennisi, a horticulturist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, recommends giving each plant a good check-up before buying it as a gift.

“You should purchase only healthy looking plants with medium- to dark-green foliage. That is, unless the foliage is supposed to be a different color,” Pennisi says. “If the plant is unhealthy at the nursery, chances are it will decline and may even die soon after you purchase it.”

Avoid plants with unnaturally spotted, yellow or brown leaves, and check under the leaves for hitchhiking pests. If you’re shopping for ferns, don’t be alarmed if you see brown-colored spots or long rows of structures on the lower leaf surface. These “spots” are reproductive structures called spores.

“Remove the plant from the pot and examine the root system,” Pennisi says. “Healthy roots generally are and should be visible along the outside of the soil ball and should have an earthy smell. Unhealthy roots also may smell foul.”

Black, brown or discolored roots are typically signs of problems. But some plants, like Dracaenas, have roots with colors other than white.

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 Pot it Right
Attractive planters can enhance the decorative value of the plants. Consider the following when selecting a planter:

  • the plant’s space needs
  • the needs of the individual and the environment
  • cost and availability
  • strength and durability
  • drainage
  • weight

The style, shape and size of the container should complement the plant. Small containers are best for small, slow-growing plants and larger containers are better suited for fast-growing ones. Containers can be terra cotta, clay, plastic or ceramic.

“Terra cotta pots, made of fired clay, are some of the most popular choices, with designs ranging from plain to ornate,” Pennisi says. “Plants perform very well in terra cotta pots, as the porous surface allows good air exchange between the plant roots and the environment.”

Clay containers that aren’t terra cotta range from gray to brown in color, depending on the clay type. Clay pots can be glazed or unglazed.

“The glazed pots restrict air exchange, but offer more design choices,” Pennisi says. “Unglazed pots evaporate water faster, and plants in them may need more frequent watering.”

Disadvantages of clay containers are their fragility and weight. Plastic is a non-breakable alternative, but it doesn’t breathe as well. Plastic pots range from simple to elaborate and are constructed of materials like polyethylene, polyurethane, recycled plastic and fiberglass.

Plastic-pot advantages include their light weight and chip and break resistance. Air exchange and water evaporation rates are generally lower in plastic containers compared to clay containers, but plants in plastic pots will not dry out as quickly, increasing the danger of over-watering.

Planters can have drainage holes or not, but don’t allow plants in containers with drainage holes to sit in saucers filled with water, unless the plant is suspended above the water level by a layer of rocks.

“Containers without drainage holes work well for plants such as the peace lily (Spathiphyllum), which needs plenty of water, but they should not be used for cacti and succulents,” Pennisi says.

If you reuse containers, clean them by washing out any old compost, chemical or paint residues. Sterilize the container by placing it in a 10 percent bleach solution and rinsing well.

For a list of popular indoor plants, see the UGA CAES publication website, or get ideas from these articles for plant and pot options:


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