Published on 11/20/14

Make sure holiday gift plants are disease and pest free

By Sharon Dowdy

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

Bodie Pennisi, a researcher on the University of Georgia campus in Griffin, Ga., recommends giving each plant a good check-up before buying it as a gift.

Check the leaves and roots

“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,” said Pennisi, a horticulturist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “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 plant’s leaves for hitchhiking pests. If you’re shopping for ferns, do not 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.

Nursery owners may frown on Pennisi’s next tip.

“Remove the plant from the pot and examine the root system. Healthy roots generally are and should be visible along the outside of the soil ball and should have an earthy smell,” she said. “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.

Pick the right pot for your plant

Attractive planters can enhance the decorative value of the plants. Consider the following when selecting a planter: the plant’s needs; the needs of the individual and the environment; cost and availability; strength and durability; drainage and 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 said. “Plants perform very well in terra cotta pots, as the porous surface allows good air exchange between the plant roots and the environment.”

Other non-terra cotta clay containers 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,” she said. “Unglazed pots evaporate water faster, and plants in them may need more frequent watering.”

Disadvantages of clay containers include the fact that they are fragile, can break and be heavy (especially large pots).

Plastic doesn't break, but it doesn't breathe either

Plastic pots range from very simple to quite elaborate. They are constructed of materials like polyethylene, polyurethane, recycled plastic and fiberglass.

Their advantages include being lightweight as well as chip- and break-resistant. Air exchange and water evaporation rates are generally lower in plastic containers compared with clay containers. Plants in plastic pots will not dry out as quickly as plants in clay pots, increasing the danger of over-watering.

In general, planters either have drainage holes or don’t have drainage holes. Do not 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 said.

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 rinse well.

For a list of popular indoor plants, see the UGA CAES publication website at

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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