Botanical Gifts Inspired by the Barnes Arboretum at Saint Joseph’s University

by Erin O'Boyle

Inside of a greenhouse filled with plants
Keys to the Article
  • Eva Monheim, a horticulturist at the Barnes Arboretum, says compatibility is important when selecting a plant to give someone, and gives examples of plants that can be used in cooking, as well as indoor plants that can eventually be planted outside.
  • For children, seed catalogues and succulents make interesting gifts that can also be used as teaching tools.
  • Monheim often gives cuttings of her plants as gifts, so her students can experiment with them and grow their own plants.

Plants are among the most beautiful, unique and meaningful gifts to give during the holidays. Even if you are unfamiliar with the care and upkeep of plants, you don’t need to have a green thumb to successfully take care of one, says Eva Monheim, horticulturist and an adjunct faculty at Barnes Arboretum at Saint Joseph’s.

“It all has to do with compatibility with the person you’re giving the plant to,” she explains. “How willing are they to take care of it? Sometimes people you may not think are nurturing may become nurturing with this plant.” But she also stresses that it is important to have some knowledge about the plant you are gifting to someone. “Flower shops and garden centers will often give out information and instructions on how to take care of a plant.”

Monheim says that potted herbs like basil and rosemary are a good place to start, and can be found in supermarkets or stores such Lowe’s or Home Depot. “Sometimes you’ll even see a little rosemary Christmas tree,” she says.

“Rosemary was considered to be a spiritual plant, and the stems can be used to create skewers to put food on, like chicken.” She also suggests plants like bay laurel – for bay leaves – as a gift that could also be useful for cooking. “Their leaves are good for stews and sauces, and you can even drop a bay leaf into a container of flour to keep the flour fresh.”

Other popular plants this time of year include the Christmas rose, also known as the hellebore, or helleborus niger. “Those are great for indoor spaces, although they may not last all year in the house. But you will get a long season of interest, and you can enjoy its bloom until the spring.” Afterward, the hellebore can be planted outside. Small evergreens are also popular indoor plants during the holidays, and can likewise be planted outside.

Monheim also recommends considering the eastern teaberry plant – also known as the American wintergreen – as a potential gift. “The teaberry has edible red berries, and is available at many different shops, including Lowe’s,” she explains. “They can be planted in a terrarium, which may be optimal for some people, since terrariums are self-contained and only require an occasional watering.” She says that since they aren’t fussy, these kinds of plants may be good gifts for nursing homes or elderly relatives and friends.

Two plants that are in bloom this time of year are the Thanksgiving cactus and the Christmas cactus. “They are rather showy, and they hold up well. They can live to be 100 years old.” The Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are just two of many choices, if you are thinking of gifting someone a succulent.

“Succulents are popular because they are low maintenance,” explains Monheim. “If someone forgets to water a succulent that’s on a windowsill, it won’t die right away.” A genus of the cactus family, succulents have thick, engorged leaves that are used for retaining water in arid environments. Succulents are spineless, and Monheim recommends them if someone is gifting a plant to a child.

Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis). Photo by Eva Monheim.

Rex begonia (Begonia rex-cultorum). Photo by Eva Monheim.

Rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens). Photo by Eva Monheim.

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). Photo by Eva Monheim.

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“Succulents are funky looking and different,” she says. “And you can use them as teaching tools, because you can take a leaf from a succulent and put it in soil to grow. It doesn’t need part of its stem to reproduce.”

Plants such as begonias and African violets are others that will reproduce from just a leaf being replanted. “You can take a leaf, stick it in the soil and it’ll root. A new plant will form at the base of the leaf. If your children are home-schooled, especially now with the pandemic, they can use these plants to observe and learn from.” 

She also suggests giving people – especially children – seeds or a seed catalogue so they can try growing something on their own. “Lettuce, radishes, marigolds and zinnias for the summer, herbs for the house. These things are quick to grow,” she says, and would be great teaching tools for children. “Or, when you finish eating an avocado, an avocado seed would be a fabulous thing to grow,” she adds.

As for Monheim, she prefers gifting people cuttings of her own plants. “I usually give my students cuttings to take home, to experiment with them,” she says. “I’ve given them to at least 10 to 15 students that visited my office. And they love the fact that I’m giving them parts of my plants. It’s about empowering others to learn how to propagate the plants and watch them grow over time. In turn, they can share them with others.”