Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The poinsettia's introduction to the U.S. in the 1800's as a novel new plant was a far cry from its popularity today. How in the world did a wild plant from Mexico become a fixture in many American homes during the holidays?
Much of the poinsettia's popularity today is credited to Paul Ecke Sr., of California. Observing that the poinsettia naturally flowered around Christmas in California, he envisioned the poinsettia becoming "the" Christmas flower. But how could he accomplish this at a time when most people had never even seen a poinsettia, and had no reason to associate it with Christmas?
At the time, Ecke's ranch was located in the Los Angeles area of California. He began to make poinsettia a household name by marketing poinsettias as cut flowers from roadside stands in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area, near the fields from which the flowers were harvested. Poinsettias were also sold as good landscape plants for southern California homeowners since their climate is very similar to Mexico's climate.
As the Los Angeles area population boomed, and poinsettias grew in popularity, Ecke had to find more land for his ranch. In 1923, he bought land in Encinitas, California, where his ranch stands today. Through the mid 1960's, his ranch provided mother plants for greenhouses across the U.S. The poinsettias grown up to this point were very different than those we see today. They lost their leaves and bracts very soon after Christmas, tended to be very tall and leggy, and did not grow very well as potted plants. Plant breeding and the next Ecke generation was poised to change that.
Paul Ecke Jr. promoted the idea of producing greenhouse grown cuttings rather than field grown mother plants for sale to greenhouses. This cut down on shipping costs, and led to the development of varieties well-suited to being greenhouse grown in pots. Paul Jr. also launched an aggressive marketing plan, promoting poinsettias in print and on television, even placing poinsettias on The Tonight Show and Bob Hope Christmas Specials. His efforts paid off, as most people today associate the poinsettia with Christmas. This has been a great success for Paul Jr., as statistics say over ninety percent of the world's poinsettia plants started life in California at the Ecke ranch.