Magazine article Sunset

Christmas Flower

Magazine article Sunset

Christmas Flower

Article excerpt

When Paul Ecke III inspects his business operations, the effect is like Moses parting the Red Sea. Washed in the milky light peculiar to greenhouses, Ecke glides through an ocean of crimson: 'Red Satin', 'Red Baron', and, of course, 'Freedom'.

Ecke pauses to admire one especially pulchritudinous example of this last specimen. "'Freedom' is our Michael Jordan," he says. "It is as good at what it does as Michael Jordan is." 'Freedom' is a poinsettia. If as you read this you have a holiday poinsettia lurking nearby, you have Paul Ecke III and his family to thank.

Euphorbia pulcberima played a large role in my childhood Christmases. I grew up in Ventura, a Southern California town that styled itself "The Poinsettia City by the Sea." Out of civic duty, residents annually acquired poinsettias by the truckload, until it seemed to me the flower must have been part of Christmas since the time of the original St. Nicholas.

The reality is different, I find when I visit the Paul Ecke Ranch, in Encinitas on the San Diego County coast.

"The poinsettia was named for Joel Poinsett," Ecke tells me. "He was the first American ambassador to Mexico." In 1828, Ecke explains, Poinsett noticed the plant growing near Taxco and sent it home to South Carolina. it might have remained mere botanical novelty were it not for Ecke's ancestors.

"My great-grandfather Albert emigrated from Germany," Ecke says. Albert Ecke farmed land in Hollywood. He sold produce and cut flowers, including a few poinsettias he had probably found growing wild. These plants had an interesting feature: As December neared, reduced hours of daylight turned their leaves from green to red.

Until then, the plant most associated with Christmas was the cyclamen. But Albert's son, Paul, realized the red-andgreen poinsettia could be a bigger draw. "He took those flowers to florists across the U.S.," Paul Ecke III tells me. "He said, 'Here is a plant you can sell at Christmas."' it was the 1920s, the decade when Hollywood burst onto the American scene, and Ecke benefited from reflected show business glamour. "When Paul Ecke showed up from Southern California, it was a big deal."

Ecke succeeded in getting countless articles about poinsettias in newspapers and magazines. …

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