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More Than Just a Bit of Color

December 13, 1990|DAVID SHAUGHNESSY

North County is at the vortex of a seasonal exchange of flora between warm and cold climates: we send flowers, they send trees.

In places where snow shovels and mufflers are necessary accessories, folks pine for the fresh flowers and colorful plants that grow in North County. Ranches and greenhouses in Encinitas and Carlsbad produce cut flowers and flowering plants that will add brilliant holiday color to homes and workplaces around the world.

Meanwhile, stately Noble and Douglas firs make their way south from Washington and Oregon to be adorned with lights and baubles in Poway and Del Mar. Although some pines are grown locally, the majority are imported, usually from the Northwest.

In North County, where holidays can be spent at the beach or riding bikes and where Santa is likely to be wearing Raybans, folks often use imported decor to remind themselves that Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat.

"More and more people are decorating for the holiday season," said Karen England of Sunshine Gardens in Encinitas. "They seem to want the traditional types of decorations like you'd see in a magazine--wreaths on doors or over mantles, centerpieces, holiday bouquets. To get that holiday aroma in the house, they'll put fresh garland (long strands of woven pine boughs) along staircases or over doorways."

The biggest impact on the holiday season, though, comes from the sprawling, 900-acre Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch in Encinitas. More than 90% of the world's flowering poinsettia plants get their start there as 3/4-inch cuttings, which are shipped around the globe as mother plants.

The poinsettia, with its distinctive green under-foliage and brightly colored (usually red) leaves, has become the nation's best-selling plant (surpassing chrysanthemums, the longtime leader) and has, for many, become the new living symbol of Christmas.

Individual consumers can't buy directly from the Ecke ranch, but when they buy from other outlets in the area they are usually getting an Ecke-cultivated plant. It is something that most sellers point out with pride. Poinsettias are priced from under $5 to more than $60.

Traditional red poinsettias are still the most popular, but selective breeding on the Ecke Ranch has produced many shades of pink, white and yellow, as well as variegated pink and white and, this year's hybrid special, a speckled cultivar with pink flecks on dark red bracts called "Jingle Bells."

"Poinsettias are the Christmas flower," said Evelyn Weidner of Weidner's Begonia Gardens in Encinitas, which sells Ecke plants. "It's not Christmas until you have a poinsettia. They make wonderful gifts and now they stay in bloom for months. They just make people feel like Christmas."

Recently named San Diego County Farmer of the Year, Weidner owns four ranches in Encinitas that ship flowering plants from Hawaii to Maine. At one ranch, used strictly for propagation, new and unusual plants are developed for shipping to growers across the United States and Canada.

One of the newest is scaevola, or "Blue Wonder," a German import that is propagated in the United States only at Weidner's. Other current favorites at the Weidner ranches and Begonia Garden are lysimashia procumbes, or "Golden Globes," and acalypha pendula, or "Strawberry Firetails," a showy flower from South and Central America that can be grown as a ground cover or in hanging baskets.

Visitors are able to dig up their own begonias when in season, and, at this time of year, can dig up pansies, a winter color plant that can be kept in bloom till the hot summer months. "We have a lot of cyclamen, and those are plants that bloom well into the winter and keep blooming till spring and almost summer. They're just gorgeous," Weidner said.

"This time of year, it's such a flash of color that you can't resist," said Weidner's daughter, Mary. That flash of color includes fuchsias, impatiens, diascias and anthuriums as well as poinsettias. Weidner's offers topiary classes and informal workshops for poinsettia decorating and holiday ideas. It also has orchids and blue and white baskets for Hanukkah.

Another major grower in North County, Thornton-Blue Pacific in Encinitas, raises more than 70 different kinds of flowers that are shipped around the world as cut blooms.

"We are the largest bird of paradise grower in the world," said Joe Leiva, sales manager. "We ship them all across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico." The ranch has 65 acres of bird of paradise, which along with snap dragons, poms and miscellaneous brightly colored "wax" or shiny flowers, are holiday favorites.

There are more than 50 flower growers in the Encinitas area alone. December actually marks the start of the cut flower season, which extends to Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Easter and June weddings. As springtime holidays approach, roses and carnations move ahead in popularity.

Meanwhile, the poinsettia is in its finest hour.

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