Give a gift of greenery

Steffie Shields suggests Christmas present ideas for the garden and home.
It has taken a world pandemic and dire lockdown to remind everyone just how significant a role nature’s greenery plays in our health. Greenery contributes countless wellbeing benefits besides providing oxygen. So here are some ideas for what to give granny
and granddad, your closest relatives and friends, different surprises to put under, or at least around the Christmas tree! Treat young children to the fascination of plants, whether indoor or outdoor, the pride and satisfaction in growing their very own specimen.

The trouble with poinsettias and Christmas cacti, now sold in every red and rosy hue, is that once the twelfth day of Christmas has come and gone one senses they should be put away, or thrown out with other decorations. Surely, far better to give a long-lasting present suitable whatever the décor; a fern or palm to add a year-round touch of calm.

Have you noticed the latest trend for house plants, perhaps in line with renewed interest in retro furnishing? RHS Chelsea show organisers plan to introduce surprise new competitions for 2021 including ‘House Plant Studios’, an indoor plants category, featuring various setpiece rooms judged on design, plant condition and overall impression. Showcasing the rich variety of house plants, medicinal herbs and organically grown plants available nowadays should prove especially inspirational for those city-dwellers without gardens. Another show garden category, sure to prove popular, ‘Sanctuary Gardens’ will demonstrate peace and spirituality.

Whether 1950s or 1960s, I still picture the must-have, ubiquitous rubber plant, Ficus elastica, that overran suburbia. Ours grew and grew like Jack’s ‘beanstalk’. Eventually, it took over an entire corner of my parents’ sitting room, leaning quite menacingly. Mum used to dust its large shiny leaves by sponging them with milk! She would lovingly spray her maidenhair fern, battling to keep it alive in a humid atmosphere, its clouds of tiny, delicate green leaves often reduced to a sad dried-up stump with the odd feathery new wisp – not the best look.

A luxurious grape ivy, Cissus rhombifolia, tolerant of central heating, proved more successful. Common in the sixties and seventies, this now rather rare vine cascaded over the sides of hanging baskets and urns. Mum’s grew upright on a trellis, eventually so tall, it was banished outside the front door on the flats’ stairwell landing. Every December, she dressed the leaves with coloured fairy lights – a touch of Christmas magic for every young visitor coming up the stairs.

Keeping it in the family, I inherited a potted palm, Areca Palm, Dypsis lutescens, when my daughter moved out of her London flat. Twenty years later, given a draught-free, shady corner with no direct sunlight, it has proved easy-care whether in our living room or bathroom. With moderate watering, an occasional trim and feed, I tend to divide and re-pot it every two to three years, never tiring of its elegance.

During winter months, our kitchen sink windowsill is home to a smaller succulent. Though not hardy, Echeveria elegans is simple to maintain and has an RHS Award of Garden Merit, with the nickname ‘Mexican Snowball’ revealing its origins. The thick, fleshy leaves form a pleasing, sculptural, bluish-grey evergreen rosette. Underneath, quietly multiplying, baby ‘snowballs’ begin to form and peak out, hence its other common name: ‘hens and chicks’. These can be separated to pot on or give away, ideal come late spring for an outdoor patio display, growing long, slender pink stalks of small, gay flowers, pink with yellow tips.

The winter garden exhibits a different character. Most flowering perennials have drooped, blackened by frost, amid fading seed heads and wind-blown grasses. Welcome a refreshing season when evergreens show off amazing diversity and resilience. Recently, like a child on a nature ramble, I walked slowly around our ‘home turf’, to collect different leaves which endure wintry weather. This little exercise was invigorating and did me good. I added one contrasting slender, red stem still hanging on to glorious golden foliage. Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’, the glamorous star of any winter show garden.

Equally enjoyable, on closer study indoors, the challenge was to create displays illustrating my favourite winter plants. Here is an unusual shopping list for Christmas gifts in response to these difficult times, mainly shiny, silvery, or variegated evergreens with special significance or fragrance.

1. Laurus nobilis: one of the oldest shrubs in cultivation, popular in cooking, it stands for glory and victory.

2. Cupressus macrocarpa: a slow-growing columnar, evergreen conifer from Monterey that can be clipped, and is useful for flower-arranging. Cypress is a symbol of immortality.

3. Salvia officinalis: fragrant common sage for ‘domestic virtue’, a useful culinary herb.

4. Artemisia: as a jest; an aromatic plant grown for its divided, feathery silver foliage sometimes called southernwood; an ingredient in the spirit absinthe, and used for flavouring in some other spirits and wines, including bitters and vermouth. Artemisia was the goddess of the hunt and protector of the forest and children.

5. Buxus sempervirens: common box, a year-round, evergreen frame for a parterre or a topiary eye-catcher tolerant of clipping and therefore an emblem of stoicism.

6. Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’: its stems vary from orange at the base through to red at the top and attracts bees, birds, butterflies/moths and other pollinators.

7. Cyclamen hederifolium: be sure to choose a miniature hardy cyclamen with heart-shaped leaves patterned silvery-green like ivy. This will then naturalise as ground cover in dry ground under shrubs and trees, lying dormant in summer to reappear with pale pink or white flowers through autumn and early winter.

8. Sarcococca confusa: Christmas box, a winter-flowering evergreen shrub, bearing sweetly scented white blooms in dark green leaves.

9. Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’: known as ‘Fortune’s spindle’ after Robert Fortune, the Scottish explorer and botanist. Its variegated foliage is superb for flower-arranging.
Give a gift of greenery, tied with a red ribbon, to stir memories; a positive present that will keep on giving. Any pretty ivy will convey ‘friendship’ or, if red is the merry colour you crave, opt for Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’. Its large, glossy, elliptic leaves are ruby when young. A more traditional holly, Ilex aquifolium ‘JC van Tol’ might fit your bill. Its leaves shine like silver, and with no prickly thorns makes easier gathering for indoor decoration. It bears abundant clusters of bright scarlet berries loved by birds, as also borne on many attractive varieties of evergreen cotoneaster shrubs.

Finally, a rooted little Christmas fir tree might suit your nearest and dearest: Picea abies, the Norway spruce, a symbol of constancy and faithfulness. Whether for patio, porch or garden, it will signal ‘hope in adversity’ and festooned with starry fairy lights bring peace of mind for many festive seasons to come. Don’t forget to copy this verse from the carol on the gift tag!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
You bear a joyful message:
That faith and hope shall ever bloom
To bring us light in winter’s gloom.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree!

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