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The bloom is off the poinsettia

COLUMN ONE

Business is tough for the family who turned a gangly weed into the Christmas classic.

December 23, 2008|Mike Anton

ENCINITAS, CALIF. — On a day when America's banks were failing and the Big Three automakers were on their knees begging Congress for money, Paul Ecke III could muster little sympathy.

"I can't go to Washington looking for a bailout," the 53-year-old industry leader said. "I should be making $20 million a year like these auto guys. All they have to do is make good cars that don't break down. Mine is a far more complicated business."

Foreign competitors and outdated equipment. Lowball pricing by upstarts trying to muscle market share. Crushing energy costs and a tanking economy. European regulators and Chinese patent thieves.

The poinsettia game has never been tougher.

"When I tell people that I'm in the flower business, they say, 'Ohhh, that must be so pretty,' " Ecke said. "But I can tell you it's no tiptoe through the tulips."

The Eckes of Southern California are to poinsettias what De Beers of South Africa is to diamonds. Over the last century, four generations of Eckes took a cold-weather bloomer few Americans had ever seen and made it a holiday staple.

Their zealous promotion is the reason the poinsettia is the nation's bestselling potted plant -- an astonishing fact considering about 100 million are sold each year in just six weeks. Let's see the iPhone top that.

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German immigrant Albert Ecke and his family were headed to Fiji to open a health spa when they stopped in Los Angeles in 1900 and liked what they saw. They established a dairy farm and fruit orchard a few years later in the Eagle Rock area.

Ecke became intrigued by the red-and-green shrub that is native to Mexico and Central America and grew wild throughout the Southland. The Aztecs extracted dyes and a fever treatment from poinsettias, and the Spanish used it as a Christmas decoration. The plant was brought to the United States in the late 1820s by the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett.

Ecke was the first to develop the commercial potential. He grew poinsettias on farmland in Hollywood and sold them from street stands. His son, Paul Ecke Sr., had bigger ideas.

A visionary horticulturist and businessman, Paul Ecke Sr. gave the poinsettia a makeover through a secret breeding technique that turned the delicate and gangly weed into a sturdy and voluptuous potted plant. In the 1920s he moved south and laid a carpet of poinsettias stretching from Carlsbad to Encinitas.

His son, Paul Ecke Jr., expanded the business yet again. In the 1960s he moved the poinsettias into greenhouses and pushed cuttings shipped by air instead of mature plants hauled by rail.

An inexhaustible promoter who would've given P.T. Barnum competition, Paul Ecke Jr. created buzz by showering television networks with free poinsettias from Thanksgiving to Christmas. He extolled their virtues on programs such as "The Tonight Show" and Bob Hope's holiday specials.

The Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on the world's poinsettia market largely because no one could figure out how they produced uniformly perfect plants with multiple branches emanating from a single stem -- the so-called Ecke style.

"My grandfather learned this from a German backyard gardener he knew," said Paul Ecke III, also known as P3. "Nobody at the ranch knew the secret. My grandfather, my dad and their breeder knew, and it was done at the breeder's home so nobody could see."

In 1992, Ecke took out a 30-year loan and bought out other family members, well aware he was following in the footsteps of two flower industry legends.

His timing couldn't have been worse.

Imagine Col. Sanders with his 11 herbs and spices laid bare. Or Coca-Cola with its recipe splashed across the Internet. That's how Ecke felt when a university researcher published an article revealing his family's secret process.

It wasn't pollination, but rather the grafting of two types of poinsettias to create the desired plant from which cuttings were taken. It was stitched together like Frankenstein's monster.

"The people who wanted to compete with us said, 'Ah, now we get it,' " Ecke said. "I was saying, 'My life is over.' "

The Ecke Ranch in Encinitas is a California plein air painting come to life, an idyllic island in a sea of sprawl where soft December light slants across towering palms and eucalyptus trees and rows of massive greenhouses.

The rickety buildings are more than 40 years old and are heated by a hulking boiler that looks like an artifact from the Industrial Revolution. Employing technology that wouldn't pass muster at a junior high science fair -- cheap box fans suspended by wires circulate the air -- the greenhouses are a mess of rot and rust and coils of black irrigation pipe lying about like dead snakes.

Nearly half of them are empty, monuments to the upheaval in the poinsettia business over the last 15 years.

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