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Planting a Vision : Southland Ranch Has Brought Poinsettia Business Into Full Bloom

December 14, 1996|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENCINITAS, Calif. — If it weren't for Joel Roberts Poinsett, we'd all be buying bright red Euphorbia pulcherrima plants at this time of year. On second thought, if it weren't for Paul Ecke, chances are the showy bloomers known as poinsettias would not be the holiday mainstays they are today.

It was Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who spotted the fiery plants in their seasonal glory near the Mexican town of Taxco in the 1820s and brought them across the border to his South Carolina plantation. And it was Ecke, an East German immigrant to Southern California, who a century later helped put them on the horticultural map as indoor potted plants.

Thanks to Ecke's vision, the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas--a.k.a. the poinsettia capital of the world--has long been the leader in developing poinsettias into the No. 1 potted flowering plant in America. The poinsettia is also the only holiday plant with a day named in its honor: Dec. 12, the date of Poinsett's death.

"Grandfather marketed the concept to greenhouse growers as a solution for seasonal lulls," said Paul Ecke III, 41, who holds an MBA from Duke University and runs the family ranch.

Today, more than 80% of the plants sold worldwide each year get their start in one of the dozens of greenhouses sprawled throughout 40 acres on the family's ranch. A variety known as Eckespoint Freedom--which comes in a dark ruby red, as well as white, pink and two multicolored versions--accounts for more than half the 70 million blooming poinsettias sold each year in the United States.

It obviously isn't merely a crimson tide emanating from the Ecke dynasty. These days, in large part because of the Eckes' research and hybridizing efforts, plants also come in off-white, lemon-drop yellow, marbled pink, speckled salmon--and even curly.

It's tough to imagine a time when potted poinsettias were not used to deck the halls and tables of shops, homes and restaurants in December.

But until the 1960s, poinsettias were primarily grown in fields and harvested as freshly cut flowers. Old-timers might recall when the Eckes early in the century grew poinsettias by the truckload in immense outdoor fields along Hollywood, Sunset and Sepulveda boulevards. The Roxy music hall on Sunset, Ecke said, was once a poinsettia packinghouse.

In 1920, Paul Ecke Sr. developed the first poinsettia that could be successfully grown indoors in a pot. Soon after, the family relocated its operation to Encinitas in northern San Diego County, with its excellent climate, good water supply and proximity to a railroad.

From 1929 to 1966, Paul Sr. and his son Paul Jr. continued to produce mother plants that were harvested in the spring and shipped by boxcars to greenhouse growers nationwide. But new varieties that flourished indoors radically changed the industry in the 1960s. Field production dwindled in favor of propagation of small cuttings in the greenhouse. Cuttings are now shipped by air to 1,500 growers licensed to produce blooming poinsettias from Ecke cuttings.

During the holidays, Ecke Ranch breaks with its primary role as a supplier of cuttings to "bloom out" half a million poinsettias for local growers. On a recent sun-splashed weekend afternoon, workers were moving along rainbow-hued rows, packing plants into brown paper sleeves for shipment to florists, garden centers and an occasional upscale supermarket.

Ecke Ranch does not ship to general mass merchants, which account for an ever-increasing number of the potted poinsettias sold in the United States.

New forms, including topiaries and mini-plants, and colors, including Monet, with rose-pink marbling, have sparked attention for the industry--if not a rush of year-round sales. (What most people think of as the flower are actually modified leaves, or bracts. The actual flowers are the tiny bud-like yellow or green parts--the cyathia--at the center of each group of bracts.)

"Red will still outsell the [other] colors," said Jacob Maarse, a longtime Pasadena florist and one of the largest distributors of Ecke Ranch poinsettias. Maarse expects that seven of every 10 plants he sells this season will be red--about the national average.

The curly varieties--which look like poinsettias with a permanent wave--are being test-marketed during the holidays in Southern California. But, wonders Ecke Ranch marketing director Laurie Scullin, might these hydrangea-like plants sell as a "pillow and cloud" plant for Valentine's Day? "There really isn't a Mother's Day plant," he added hopefully.

Paul Ecke III, who took over management of the company from his father, Paul Ecke Jr., remains skeptical of such talk. "A lot of people have suggested we develop a year-round market, but I'm not so sure," he said. "One of the things that make potted poinsettias special is you only see them once a year."

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