Best Gifts of 2014 for Nature Lovers

Smithsonian editors, gardeners and scientists offer ideas to give the gifts that keep wildlife thriving

Garden Knife
Amazon

Does your blood run in shades of green—teal to viridian? With the holidays at our throats again, it’s time to put the friend in Earth-friendly and give the gifts that keep songbirds singing, garden bees pollinating and other wildlife thriving. Here are a few suggestions for every nature lover and eco-maniac on your list, and even a few for those who could use a lesson in environmental stewardship.

See more Nature Lover Gifts in our Holiday Shop

Mason Bee House ($19.95)

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(Amazon)

With honey bees threatened due to colony collapse disorder and pesticide exposure, encourage your friends to turn their apartment balconies and backyards into safe havens for native pollinators. The non-aggressive garden lovers rarely sting and are hugely helpful pollinators. In early spring, mason bees will quickly take up residence in these compact, high-rise tunnel homes. Find a south-facing wall and mount the nest about 7 feet high and within about 300 feet of their favorite spring-blossoming foods—azaleas, dandelions and coneflowers. Leave some moist mud handy so that the female can manufacture the nesting plugs that give the creature its name. The bees will return the favor, helping to pollinate all your wildflowers, vegetables and especially fruit trees.

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman, museums digital editor

Outdoor Wildlife Camera ($120)

Ever since inventor George Shiras rigged a clunky camera with a baited tripwire in the early 1900s, wildlife scientists and field researchers have used camera traps equipped with infrared triggers to capture the nighttime meanderings of leopards, tigers and other endangered species. Earlier this year, a team of researchers and Pakistani volunteers managed to capture on film the notoriously elusive snow leopard. Now that the market is stocked with affordable models, give all the wildlife-loving friends on your list a backyard camera trap so they can keep track of garden intruders including deer, raccoons, fox and alley cats. Or take the cameras on vacation to snap playful portraits of gray fox, beavers, bobcats or coyote near streams, ponds or lakes. Who knows, a great camera-trap shot might just prove to be a prizewinner in Smithsonian.com’s annual photo contest

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

Necklace Garden ($22-$45)

Award every enviro-maniac on your list with this gem—a tiny oxygenation plant to wear around your neck. Photosynthesis, explains Smithsonian.com reporter Henry Fountain, is “nature’s way of making use of all that light source that comes from the sun.” Plants produce the sweet oxygen that enriches our atmosphere. They have been using light in this primal way, Fountain says, for a large chunk of Earth’s existence. Humans can’t photosynthesize, but we do breathe the oxygen that plants produce, and plants in turn thrive on the CO2 end product of human respiration. Celebrate that symbiotic relationship with a necklace garden. Tiny trowel and mini watering cans (presumably) sold separately. 

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

Bird-Friendly Coffee ($12.95)

In 1996, biologists and the coffee industry came together to discuss how the decline of a traditional method for growing coffee in Latin American forests was proving detrimental to migratory birds that wintered in the tree canopy. The trend toward sun plantations for growing coffee was rapidly taking hold, and forests were being removed. In Colombia alone some 68 percent of the coffee farms had abandoned the shade tradition. The Smithsonian’s Russ Greenberg recognized that a ready market of 61 million bird watchers in the United States would also likely be coffee drinkers. In 1997, the first Smithsonian bird-friendly coffee became available. Today Smithsonian researchers are helping coffee growers to sustainably manage their farms—including the types and height of native trees, proper pruning and composting. Bird friendly coffee supports some 1,200 farmers, who supply 7.7 million pounds of coffee annually to 35 worldwide coffee roasters. More than 14,800 acres of habitat is currently protected. Look for the registered “Bird Friendly” certification stamp from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

Have Trowel, Will Garden ($20.95-$138)

“I love the Wilcox pointed trowel,” says Smithsonian gardener Cindy Brown. “The point allows for precision when you’re digging in and around shallow rooted plants like sedums and sempervivums. It’s great for stabbing the soil and dropping in bulbs. And the red handle makes it easy to find in the compost pile.” Says gardener Shelley Gaskins: "My favorite gift is a Hori Hori knife, or Japanese gardening knife, for weeding as well as planting, and it comes in handy for opening up heavy-duty plastic bags of soil and mulch." Other Smithsonian gardeners swear by their Felco pruners and suggest lightweight plastic tubtrugs for cleanup; telescoping pruners for lightweight, long-reach lopping of trees and shrubs; and knee pads. But the king of all garden gifts this year, says the staff, is the rain barrel with a diverter system for collecting runoff water from roofs and gutters. For the armchair gardener, the whole Hort Team is pleased with its new book the Smithsonian Encyclopedia of Garden Plants For Every Location from DK Publishing.

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

Stainless Steel Keurig Filter ($19.50)

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(Birds and Beans)

Go ahead and make friends on your list feel a touch guilty. In this case they deserve it. Keurig coffee lovers used 8.3 billion disposable coffee pods, enough to wrap around the Equator 10.5 times. Give your friends this stainless steel filter to remind them that landfills aren’t just for tiny, single-serving coffee filters.

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

Better Binoculars ($361-65)

Bigger is better, but that’s not usually the case for nature lovers trying to train their eye on a fast-moving cedar waxwing. “Buy the best pair of binoculars you can afford,” says Smithsonian ornithologist Gary Graves, who has been using a pair of high-end Zeiss binoculars for three decades. Beginning birders might prefer a wider field of view to make it easier to find the birds up in the forest canopy. Just as a reminder, when picking out optics, the numbers work like this: For 7x35 or 10x40, the first number is the power of magnification—the object is seven or ten times closer. The second number indicates the light or brightness of the lens. So if you want to see something like a hawk or an eagle from a distance, you’ll want to buy a higher magnification, and if you want to see things in low-level lighting, you’ll want a greater degree of brightness. But more powerful binoculars are difficult to keep steady. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reviews the king of birding binoculars, the Zeiss Victory SF 8 x 42, with a whopping price of $2,889. If that’s too rich for your blood, check out the Zeiss 524205 and Celestron 71372.

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

Grass Leaf Design Ballpoint Pen ($18.85)

America’s poet laureate, Walt Whitman worked for the Man. He was by turns a lowly government clerk, a typesetter and a newspaperman. If he were alive today, you could just imagine him in the next cubicle over surfing the web and pronouncing himself  “one of the roughs. . . disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them.” Whitman, says Smithsonian historian David C. Ward, “took poetry out of the drawing room and put it in the streets.” You might want to complement this gift with a copy of Whitman’s 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass.

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman

America’s National Parks, A Pop-Up Book

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(Amazon)

Bruce Foster, a contributor to the 2010 Smithsonian exhibition "Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn" is one of the creators of this remarkable pop-up compendium, featuring scenes from the Everglades, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite National Parks. The Cooper-Hewitt’s Stephen Van Dyk, who curated the show says: "Foster continues to be one of the America’s great paper engineers. The cut paper images of landscapes and animals literally lift off each page. A delightful read for nature lovers of all ages."

Suggested by Beth Py-Lieberman