How Poinsettias Became a Holiday Staple for Interiorscapers

Euphorbia pulcherrima. We love them, we hate them. Sometimes we wish we’d never see another one – but what would the Holidays be without them?

In the hope that knowing a little more about these flamboyant beauties will make dealing with them less of a chore for the rest of the season, I did some research. I guess this is my Christmas present to all of you.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America. They are members of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, a very large group of plants of over 300 genera and 7500 species. World-wide, spurges are found mostly in tropical areas. Most of the species are characterized by a milky sap exuded from cut tissue, and by their rather odd flowering system, in which the male and female parts are reduced to an absolute minimum (called a cyathia) located within a structure called an involucre, and surrounded by colored bracts. The bracts and the involucre are the structures that produce nectar and attract the pollinators.

The word spurge is derived from “purgative,” (laxative) which tells you about one of the traditional uses in herbal lore. Most of the spurge family are fairly small herbs; however, there are a good number of spurges that form bushes and small trees, and in arid regions of the world, many have taken on the appearance of cacti.

Some well-known relatives are the crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii,) pencil cactus (E. tirucalli) cathedral cactus (E. trigana,) smoketree spurge (E. cotinifolia), and snow-on-the-mountain (E. marginata, one of the few spurges native to North America.)

The milky sap contains a number of chemical substances, and many spurge species are important medicinally. It is also true that some are highly toxic, and this may be the origin of the notion that poinsettias are toxic or poisonous; however, modern research has shown that for most people, they pose no threat. One would have to consume over 500 leaves to even have a reaction! Of course, a person or animal with extreme sensitivity could see skin irritation or the like.

The Aztecs used the red bracts of poinsettia (which they called Cuetlaxochitl meaning “flower that grows in residues”) to make a red dye and a fever medicine. The Christmas association began in 16th century Mexico, and by the 17th century Franciscan friars were using it regularly in their celebrations, where it came to be known as “Flor de Nocha Buena.” Around the beginning of the 20th century, Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, was attracted by the winter blooms, and supported the cultivation of the plants in his country, where it was called “Ataturk’s flower.” In 1825, the first ambassador from the U.S. to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, sent some of the plants home, giving them both their popular English name and the beginning of their journey to becoming the most popular potted plant in the world.

It should be noted that the poinsettias growing wild in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean islands, as well the ones introduced to sub-tropical areas of the U.S., didn’t (and don’t) look much like the plants we’re used to. They were rather weedy, kind of scrawny, and grew 2- 10’ tall. Their bright red blooms appeared from the middle of November through late December, it’s true, but they were much thinner in appearance than those we see now, and the flowers faded and dropped in less than a week.

In the early 1900’s, Albert Ecke, a spa-owner and organic gardener from Baden-Baden in Germany immigrated to Los Angeles with his family, and bought a ranch on Hayworth Ave in Hollywood. Ecke was intrigued by the plants that flowered so brilliantly at the holiday time. He saw an opportunity for seasonal sales, and began growing them to sell as cut flowers along with his fruits and vegetables for the holidays.

Albert Ecke died in 1919, and his son Paul took over running the farm and selling cut flowers for the holidays. The most important thing in the poinsettia saga, though, is this: using knowledge his father had brought from Germany, he developed a special method of grafting the plants that forced them into “axillary branching,” turning them from gangly to short and squat, with side branches instead of apical branching, and allowing the plants to grow successfully in pots.

The grafting method was a secret known only to the Ecke family and their plant breeder. Using it, they became the titans of the poinsettia industry. By 1991, 90% of all poinsettias sold world-wide had their start at the Ecke Ranch.

In 1923, as urbanization overcame their space in Hollywood, Paul Sr. moved the operation to 40 acres in the Encinitas area, which quickly grew to cover area from Encinitas to Carlsbad.  Despite the disastrous winter of 1924, which fairly well destroyed the crop, the path to the future was set. They started to grow thousands of poinsettias, as well as increase their sales of field-grown mother plants from which other growers could start cuttings.

Meanwhile, Paul Jr. obtained a hort degree from Ohio State in the early ‘50’s , then joined his father at Ecke Ranch. He urged his dad to start shipping cuttings, which was made feasible by the growth of air freight, and added exponentially to their growing business. By 1963 Paul Jr. had taken over the day-to-day running of the business, and was converting the growing fields to greenhouses.

In 1965 the staff, led by Paul Jr., succeeded in creating a poinsettia that held its color for longer than a week.  They started exposing the plants to xrays and chemicals to induce mutation, and ended up with double and triple blooms, stripes and mottling, and colors as wild as orange and purple. Today, they hold over 500 plant patents, and have developed hundreds of varieties.

But Paul Jr’s contribution to our favorite Christmas flower goes far beyond genetics and growing techniques. He went out and almost single handedly turned the lovely red flowers into must-haves for the season. He sold by giving away.

For instance, with the advent of color television in the early 60’s, he immediately noticed something was missing on the Christmas show sets. So he offered to provide pots of bright poinsettias, and the next year all the stars – Dinah Shore, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope – were standing in front of banks of breathtaking red blooms for their Christmas specials. Don’t you know, people across the land began blitzing the stores for every poinsettia they could find.

Another big breakthrough was fashion and home magazines. Christmas issues showed all the Christmas trimmings, except for poinsettias – because the pictures were shot in July. So in the early 70’s Paul called the magazines and offered to provide free pots of the holiday flower. He force-bloomed them in the middle of the summer and delivered them to the studios for their shoots, and the next year – poinsettias in all the magazines. The rest, as they say, is history.

And also, as they say, all things come to an end.

Earlier, I mentioned the year 1991. That was when a young researcher from the University of Minnesota published a paper that contained the key to the Ecke grafting secret. The Ecke poinsettia monopoly was broken, and growers all over the world began producing their own bushy poinsettias. Nevertheless, even as late as 2011, Ecke was still claiming a 70% share of the market, meaning that 70% of all poinsettias produced began as starts on the Ecke Ranch.

When the 1991 article appeared, Paul Ecke III was at the helm of the business. Rising costs in the 90’s forced him to move much of the operation to Guatemala, thus taking the “Poinsettia Triumphant” back to its original home ground. Ecke finally sold the business in 2012 to the Leichtag Foundation of San Diego, and the flower business was taken over by the huge Dutch plant supplier Dummen Orange in 2015. However, as long as we have poinsettias at Christmas, the Ecke name will live on.

Featured Image by Mike McBride

Marlie Graves, known as The Ficus Wrangler, has been keeping plants beautiful, training techs and relating to clients at half a dozen companies for 30 years. She studied creative writing and psychology in college and went on to start an independent film company with her first husband. She decided to focus on plants full time after completing the NYBG Horticulture School interior landscaping course. Marlie is retired, operates "The Ficus Wrangler" YouTube channel, contributes regularly to several houseplant forums, and is working on a plantcare book based on professional methods.

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