By Michelle Poveda
While most Christmas-decorating traditions are native to colder climes, one brightly ubiquitous trimming, the poinsettia, is rooted deeply in our own backyard.
The Paul Ecke Ranch (pauleckepoinsettias.com), based in Encinitas, is the world's biggest poinsettia grower. A family business spanning four generations, it has helped turn the plant into one of the largest commercial greenhouse crops and now supplies over half the roughly 60 million poinsettias sold globally between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year.
The Eckes' lifelong love of the poinsettia dates to the early 1900s, when German immigrant Albert Ecke began cultivating the wild plant-introduced here from south of the border in 1825 by physician and botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico. It wasn't identified with Christmas until Albert's son, Paul, successfully pitched the plant as a "holiday flower" to roadside stand operators in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
In 1923, the Eckes moved their ranching business to Encinitas, where the climate approximated that of the poinsettia's origins in Mexico and Central America. (Today, the plant is grown mainly in greenhouses.)
Although much of the Ecke Ranch's stock production was shifted to a Guatemalan facility in 1997, and its European arm handles distribution overseas, the company's headquarters and hybridization facilities remain in North County. Some 5,000 U.S. growers-including those supplying retailers such as The Home Depot and Walmart-use the Ecke Ranch's 60-plus varieties of bare-root poinsettia starters, whose bracts (flowerlike colored leaves) unfurl in solid and variegated white, pink and ever-popular red.
"I enjoy sharing the beauty of poinsettias with others," says ranch manager Paul Ecke III, noting his company's yearly bloom contributions to San Diego's Poinsettia Bowl and the set of TV's The Tonight Show. "They can make even the most hardened non-flower lover become one."