Of course the best gift you can give a parent is to become an honest, upright, self-sufficient person, but that's a long term gift, and it is nice to reward the mother in your life with a more tangible, physical gift once in a while. If you draw a blank as you meander the halls of the malls, try heading in another direction and visit a nursery or garden center.

There are many imaginative, useful gifts available at these garden places; including plants, seeds, bulbs, containers, accessories, gadgets, books, and more. Whether mom is a garden devotee, new to the pleasures of gardening, or even a brown thumb, you'll be able to find items for every level of experience.

The diversity of plants available is daunting and many new selections become available yearly. First you have to decide on an indoor or outdoor plant.

Rooms feel more homey when graced with a plant. There are many attractive and exotic ones to choose from. The aspidistra, or cast-iron plant, was popular in Victorian parlors, and is making a comeback. Originally from the exotic East, where it is found in China and the Himalayas, the plant got its nickname for its ability to withstand cold, dry, poor light and neglect.

From distant Africa comes the sanseveria or snake plant (the roots are thick and snake-like). It too withstands neglect, but also high heat and bright light, since it comes from desert areas. Avoid ferns and air plants since they need high humidity, scarce commodities in Arizona homes.

Outdoor plants are more difficult to select since people can be very persnickety about their plants. Unless you are sure of a specific beloved plant, outdoor plants may be better shopped for with the recipient. Having said this, grandma loved roses, and I will take any herb offered.

Books are welcome information resources for the veteran as well as novice gardener. Most nurseries have a selection of gardening books, including some great ones for those new to Tucson. Area garden publishers include Ironwood Press, Perseus (formerly Fisher), Rio Nuevo, and the University of Arizona. The Low Water Flower Gardener (Ironwood Press) offers great ideas for color in the landscape, while Plants for Dry Climates (Fisher Books) offers information on a whole range of landscape plants.

Seeds of all sorts, including exotic flowers, heirloom vegetables, native wildflowers, and old favorites can be a welcome gift. Try the Native Seeds store on Fourth Avenue for crop plants of the native peoples. Many of these grow very well in our area.

Brown thumb? Try bulbs! Just dig a hole the right depth* and drop them in. Don't get anything to fussy, like tulips; in Tucson they need to be dug up each year. Try white or pink rain lily, Zephranthes. Rain lily is the perfect name because they flower after the summer monsoons. In Tucson, they start to flower once the soil warms up, and reward a good dose of water with a showy 3-4 inch bloom that lasts about three days. Zephranthes in my yard have already started to bloom this year. Zephranthes can also be grown in containers outdoors or in, although they flower better outside. * The right depth -- plant a bulb, pointed end up, about twice as deep as the height of the bulb. Thus a 2 inch bulb should be planted 4 inches deep.

Another gift for a brown thumb is something for the birds. A bird feeder and some seed, a hummingbird feeder, or a bird fountain. This opens the door to the discussion of "garden accessories." A partial list includes gazing balls, wind chimes, outdoor thermometers, stepping stones, and decorative copper critters to sit amongst the aloes.

Above are any number of garden gifts your can buy, and some you could make. Spend some time to make a bird feeder with the kids or grand-kids. The lopsided cement bird bath that my grandfather and us three grandchildren created for my grandmother was a treasured garden ornament that moved when they did.

Some nurseries offer other items to indulge mom with. Gardener's soap can help get the grit off. Lotions, lip balms, cleansing bars, and even bath salts are available to protect and pamper before and after gardening. A basket, or better yet a decorative planter, filled with books and bulbs and balms, seeds and soaps and salts would be a fun and useful surprise for mom.

In case it's impossible to make up your mind, and you have absolutely no clues -- get a gift certificate. That way mom can select exactly what she wants, and enjoy strolling the aisles as she tries to make up her own mind.

Jacqueline A. Soule is a botanist and the director of Tierra del Sol Institute. She offers plant classes and on-site landscape consulting. For more information please call 292-0504.

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