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Make Your Gifts Last 

Distributed by New York Times Special Features

This season brings new homes for the plants we give and receive as presents. Depending on their individual needs, some move in happily as long-term residents; others are best treated as guests. Their styles can run the gamut from informal (bobbing blooms of cyclamen) to stately (rosemary topiary, beautiful to look at and tasty to cook with) to flashy (poinsettia, Christmas cactus and amaryllis).

And while seeing old friends is a special pleasure at this time of year, it's even more fun when they turn up with a new look. Poinsettias, for example, don't have to come in red; varieties in creamy white, pink or yellow, with stripes or marbling, are a treat. Amaryllis' size and color variations can be even more dazzling.

Don't stand on ceremony, though. When a gift plant with limited post-holiday appeal wears out its welcome, firmly but gently show it the door.

Be a good host

All of the gift plants described here are reasonably easy to care for, and their visual appeal makes them great holiday decorations. Nevertheless, their specific needs differ, so be sure to treat each plant as an individual, following our basic guidelines.

Amaryllis

These bulbs give generously, year after year, and ask little in return.

Care: If you receive a bare bulb, plant it in a light, well-drained potting medium with the top third of the bulb exposed. Grow in bright light (not direct sun); let it go nearly dry between waterings. Remove faded flowers and stems. Leave plant in full sun, and apply a balanced fertilizer every two weeks. Cut off foliage only when it yellows and flops; stop feeding and gradually stop watering, to encourage dormancy.

Keeping: Store potted bulb on its side in a cool, dry, dark place for two to three months. Return pot to light, and resume watering. Repot with fresh medium every two or three years.

Christmas Cactus

A jungle cactus, not the desert kind, this stalwart can live for decades.

Care: Provide bright light and room temperatures around 70 degrees; water when soil is dry to the touch.

Keeping: In mid-September, start placing the plants in total darkness for 14 hours nightly for three to four weeks. Temperatures should be cool: in the 60s during the day, the 70s at night. Water sparingly until flower buds form; return plant to regular care conditions.

Cyclamen

The hovering butterfly blooms of florist's cyclamen cheer up gray days.

Care: Any bright window will do, but provide some shade from harsh sun. Moderate night temperatures (from 50 degrees to the 60s) and evenly moist soil help extend flowering for months. Let plant absorb water from a saucer, rather than watering from above. Cyclamen in flower needs no fertilizer.

Keeping: Cyclamen is still a lovely foliage plant even after flowering, but it eventually goes dormant. When leaves get too sparse, compost it.

Poinsettia

The vivid bracts (modified leaves) are spectacular now but very fussy about coloring up again later.

Care: Does fine at average room temperature in front of a bright to partly sunny window (but not touching cold glass or exposed to drafts). It prefers slightly dry soil to constant saturation.

Keeping: Not worth the complex regimen needed to produce next winter's display. Toss plant after color fades.

Rosemary

Brush past rosemary leaves, and they give off a wonderful piney aroma that hints at the herb's culinary uses.

Care: A sunny south-facing window is a must. Topiary needs regular turning and trimming to maintain its shape. Cool temperatures (around 55 degrees), like those on a glassed-in porch, keep plants compact; warmer rooms encourage spindly growth.

Keeping: Because this is actually an outdoor plant, it may look bedraggled by late winter. Come spring, put it outside to recover. Repot annually.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036. Questions may also be emailed to: mslletters@marthastewart.com. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit www.marthastewart.com. Copyright 2006 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

click to enlarge MATTHEW HRANEK
click to enlarge Tip: Keep poinsettias at room temperature in - front of a sunny window for best coloring.
  • Tip: Keep poinsettias at room temperature in front of a sunny window for best coloring.
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