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Flower of Christmas

December 04, 1988

Euphorbia pulcherrima has come a long way since Joel R. Poinsett brought some home to his plantation in South Carolina from Taxco, in Mexico, 160 years ago. But the global acceptance of poinsettias as a symbol of Christmas owes more to a family-run horticultural ranch in Encinitas than to Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who made the introductions.

The Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch claims without challenge to be the starting point for about 90% of the flowering poinsettias of the world, producing each Christmas a half-million flowering plants for the California and Arizona florist trade and shipping millions of cuttings around the world to provide the basic stock of national and international production. Despite the short sales season, largely limited to the six weeks before Christmas, poinsettias now rank No. 1 nationally in the dollar value of potted flowering plants--ahead of chrysanthemums and geraniums. That popularity has not developed spontaneously. The Ecke ranch in recent years has done its darndest to promote the extraordinary plants, shipping some of them free at first to film and television studios to encourage their display as background to game shows, newscasts and soap operas.

Temperature and day length determine when the poinsettia plants bloom, and at the Ecke ranch the favored plants are those that emerge from the 35 acres of plastic-covered greenhouses in prime condition for the California market. But growers can adapt temperature and light according to location. Ecke uses artificial temperature and light controls to maintain at least some in flower year round. Which is just as well. "We are forever receiving calls in the summertime from magazines and agencies preparing Christmas materials," Carolyn Mack reported. "They want fresh flowers, and we certainly don't want to see them use plastic or silk. And last July we had a special order for the filming of 'The Steel Magnolias' in Baton Rouge. They just couldn't seem to get enough."

Prime plants on the market today bear little resemblance to the plant that was cultivated by the Aztecs and called Cuetlaxochitle. The fragile, pale, rangy plants in the wild--often characterized by premature leaf drop and a short flowering--have been succeeded by new generations in an intensive and on-going breeding program that began in 1920 under the direction of Paul Ecke Sr., now 93. "He travels a lot now, but whenever he is at home he drops into the greenhouses and lets me know if he sees anything that needs attention," his son, Paul Jr., who runs the business now, told us the other day.

Paul Jr. was just back from Japan, which, although not a Christian nation, likes the holiday season and loves the color red. He was consulting 152 growers that propagate from Ecke ranch stock. Their only worry was what they would do when the emperor dies. The sale of red flowers is banned for 30 days in that event.

We had interrupted Ecke at a critical time. He was just completing the annual selection of about 200 promising new varieties from 10,000 seedlings emerging from cross-pollination of promising varieties. The 200 finalists will now go into a year-long screening program that includes survival testing in a special greenhouse duplicating what he calls "the hostile environment" that they will find in your and our living rooms--high temperatures, low humidity, erratic watering and poor lighting. It takes at least three years from new seedling to proven plant before the new poinsettias are introduced to major market testing. The process, however tedious, pays off, he emphasized. He could prove the point with his newest introduction, Eckespoint Lilo, with its ruby bracts, deep-green foliage and unusual ability to survive hostile environments.

Montezuma would not have recognized it--nor, for that matter, Ambassador Poinsett.

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