The South's most popular holiday flower comes in many shapes and sizes. Here are eight of our favorites.
Simply Red Poinsettias
Credit: Photography Jean Allsopp

You know it's Christmas when your whole neighborhood is decked out in red, from ribbons to ornaments to--best of all--poinsettias. These beautiful plants offer not one, not two, but many bold shades of red in an incredible assortment of bloom sizes and textures. Surprisingly, as wildly popular as these flowers are, some of their biggest fans have tried only a few selections. This Christmas, explore some new poinsettia possibilities--all in the signature shade of the season.

Five-Minute Flowers
Busy, busy, busy? Poinsettias are perfect for you because they put on a big show even if you do absolutely nothing to embellish them. The easiest way to enjoy these plants is to keep them in their pots. They usually come wrapped in flashy foil and tied with big bows, but you can toss all of that if it doesn't work with your decor. Create a more elegant display by placing bare pots in simple baskets or other creative containers such as colorful buckets, old wooden boxes, and glazed flowerpots that you have on hand.

Be sure to choose a container that's large enough to hold a 6- or 8-inch potted poinsettia. Place a plastic saucer inside your container to protect furniture when you water the plant. Then just drop in a poinsettia, and wow! You get a great holiday look that requires virtually zero effort.

Dress Them Up for a Party
Want something that will really stand out in the crowd at a holiday gathering? Stroll around your yard, and snip some greenery to add to your poinsettia display. Hollies, pines, cedars, and magnolias offer easy and beautiful foliage right at hand. And if you don't have any of these, just visit a nursery that sells live Christmas trees, and ask for some excess branches. Just a few extra clippings will do the trick.

The Right Cut
Most people think of poinsettias in pots, but they also make excellent cut flowers. The trick to using them in arrangements is searing the stems with a candle flame, which will help keep flowers fresh for up to 10 days. Poinsettias secrete a milky sap when the leaves or stems are broken, and you need to stop the flow of that sap to keep the flowers from drooping. The sap isn't poisonous, but it can irritate the skin, so you might want to wear gloves while making the arrangement.

Once you cut a stem, sear it quickly to avoid letting too much of the sap drip out, and have a paper napkin handy to blot the sap. Sear the stems with a pillar candle to keep your hands free. The sap will boil or bubble in the flame. (If you're working with a selection that has large leaves, such 'Winter Rose Dark Red,' you'll also need to sear the points where leaves were attached.)

You'll know within an hour if you've seared correctly, because the blossom will remain upright. If it starts to droop, cut a fresh one, and try again. It's really not hard, but you might need to experiment a time or two to get the hang of it.

Place seared stems in tepid water treated with a florist preservative to condition and extend the life of the blossoms. The stems are hollow and will absorb water after they're seared. Change the water every other day. Once they're cut, poinsettias get very thirsty, so check their water level often, and add more florist preservative each time you change the water.

Poinsettia Primer
If you cannot bear the thought of cutting your poinsettia for arrangements, just keep it in the pot. Care is easy. There is no need to fertilize; it's already in full bloom. Water it like most other houseplants. When the top of the soil feels dry, remove the plant from its container or decorative foil, and water it thoroughly. Let excess water drain out before returning it to the container. (Poinsettias don't like wet feet, so don't let them stand in water.)

Choose plants with yellow buds that are tightly clustered and just beginning to open. Also, you want plants with firm bracts and foliage that isn't wilted or broken. The selections we mention should be widely available at nurseries, florists, and garden centers, but you may have to check several sources to locate specific ones.

Poinsettias are tropical, and they like warmth. When you buy your plant, get it into the car quickly to limit any exposure to the cold. They prefer temperatures around 65 to 70 degrees. Place in an area with bright, indirect light. It's best to keep them away from cold drafts (which can chill them) or heating vents (which can dry them out). That's it. Just sit back, and enjoy the show.

Did You Know?
The pretty blossoms of poinsettias (what most people consider blooms) are really colorful leaves called "bracts." The actual flowers are the small yellow buds in the centers. The narrow bracts of 'Freedom Fireworks' make it ideal for cutting. Other good choices include 'Winter Rose Dark Red' and 'Carousel Red.'

"Simply Red Poinsettias" is from the December 2006 issue of Southern Living.