The brilliant red flowers of the Euphorbia pulcherrima plant, more commonly known as “poinsettias,” are synonymous with Christmas in the US. Considered the unofficial “Christmas flower,” it may surprise you to learn that the tradition of decorating our homes with poinsettias during the holidays is a relatively recent one. In fact, it was the vision of a farm family in California in the early 1900s that singlehandedly created the Christmas poinsettia market.
Poinsettia’s actually hail from Mexico where documentation of their cultivation can be traced as far back as the Aztecs. Known by its native name of cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-she), the bright red-colored leaves were believed to have been given by the gods as a reminder of “the precious liquid” of periodic sacrifices made in their name. Not a very Christmassy theme, for sure!
Cuetlaxochitl became associated with Christmas during the 16th century as missionaries spread Christianity through Mexico. The wild cuetlaxochitl that grows throughout the country would begin its annual color change around mid-October, which were bright red by Christmas. Of course, the resulting red-green combo has long been a symbol of Christmas in the West, so the association grew from there as Christianity – and Christmas – spread.
Cuetlaxochitl was first brought to the US in 1828 by a man named Roberts Poinsett, the US Ambassador to Mexico at the time. He successfully cultivated the plant back home in South Carolina and shared it with friends. A nursery owner in Pennsylvania soon began selling the plant to the public, which by the 1830s had been given the now popular name of “poinsettia” after the man that first cultivated it in the states.
Still, it would be almost another nine decades before poinsettias really gained widespread popularity. It all began around 1900 when Albert Ecke emigrated to the United States from Germany. In the old country, the Eckes ran a vegetarian health spa, which was tough considering not much could be grown in the winter. The Eckes decided to leave Germany in search of a climate conducive to growing vegetables year-round. They initially planned to settle in Fiji but cut the trip short after a stop in California and the budding agricultural oasis of Los Angeles.
The Eckes started an orchard and diary farm, with a flower side business. The brilliant red leaves of poinsetta plants were particularly intriguing to the Eckes due to the fact that few other plants bloomed in the winter. The Eckes decided it would make for a great seasonal business and began selling their poinsettia crop around Christmastime at a roadside stand on Sunset Boulevard. And that is why the Eckes began calling it the “Christmas flower,” which proved to be an ingenious marketing plan, albeit completely inadvertent.
As Hollywood began to explode in the 1920s, the Eckes needed to find a location more suitable to their agricultural needs. Albert Ecke’s son, Paul Ecke Sr., had worked in the family business his entire life and noticed that not only were they being squeezed for land, but their dairy and orchard businesses faced increasing competition. However, hardly anyone was growing flowers.
Paul Sr. led the family’s charge into the flower business. He scooped up some land he felt was undervalued in Encinitas, California, where he established the Ecke Ranch, all with the aim of establishing a year-round business selling blooms. That also called for innovating and streamlining the poinsettia cultivation process. Additionally, he knew his poinsettias needed to somehow stand out from the competition. So Ecke Sr. licensed technology from a German amateur flower breeder and successfully began producing unique varieties of poinsettias that were also bushier and hardier than his rivals.
The grafting technology was a closely guarded secret and according to Paul Sr.’s grandson, it was “one way we stayed on top of the market.” On top of the market is putting it mildly – the poinsettia had gone from relatively unknown to the best-selling potted plant in America and the Eckes controlled as much as 90% of the market.
Paul Sr.’s son, Paul Ecke Jr., inherited his business savvy and continued to build the family’s Christmas flower empire. In the 1960s, as a way to further embed poinsettias with Christmas, Paul Jr. began giving away poinsettias to TV shows to use during the holiday season. He then set out to get poinsettias into women’s magazines but was told the holiday shoots usually took place during the summer, the plants dormant period. So Paul Jr. set about producing a poinsettia that bloomed out of season specifically for those summertime magazine shoots! Paul Jr. also continued to improve on their poinsettia genetics, producing ever sturdier varieties that competitors couldn’t replicate.
Today, the Eckes no longer own Ecke Ranch, having sold it in 2012 after facing increasing pressure from cheaper overseas competition. However, thanks in no small part to their innovations and tenacity, the poinsettia is the second most popular plant sold in the US, behind orchids, and the number one seller during the holidays. Within a six-week period leading up to Christmas, there are about 35 million poinsettias sold in the US alone. It’s also one of the most popular plants in the world, with annual sales of over 90 million units and a global retail value of nearly $1 billion. (Sources: Produce News, San Francisco Gate, Swanson Nursery)