Come Christmas, the vibrant red leaves of poinsettias are just about everywhere, from churches and restaurants to department stores and hotels — more of a sign of the season for some than than the beloved Saint Nicholas.
But the poinsettia—loved as deeply by the horticulturist as the blackest of thumbs—probably wouldn’t have become so central to Christmas without the Ecke family, even though it was actually named for U.S. Ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett, the man who brought it back from a trip to Mexico in the 1830s.
The unheralded Ecke family, however, has more than 500 U.S. plant patents, nearly one-fifth of them for poinsettias, and holds even more in other countries across the world. While the poinsettias sold by retailers can look more or less the same to many consumers, the plant actually has countless variations, thanks in large part to a grafting secret the family held for nearly 50 years.
The earliest poinsettias were sold by individual florists and merchants—including the patriarch of the family, Albert Ecke, a German immigrant—and usually as single-cut stems instead of rooted in pots. But they were hardly durable; most would last two or three days, at best.
The Eckes helped transition poinsettias from ephemeral flowers to potted plants, created new shapes and introduced new colors (from shades of white and yellow to those that have names, “ice punch,” “pink peppermint” and “strawberries and cream” among them).
They’re vastly different from the poinsettias Americans knew a century ago, which were actually quite “scraggly,” says Paul Ecke III, who sold the Ecke Family Ranch in 2012.
“[The plants] provided a red and green color [for use] around the holidays so they became popular even though they weren’t really that beautiful,” Ecke said, at least by modern standards.
By the 1930s, his son Paul Ecke, Sr., took the reins and moved the family to a ranch in Encinitas, California. Soon, thousands of acres of poinsettias were growing under the family’s careful eye—but developing new plants was a bit of an accident, Paul Ecke III said.
Through nature’s normal mutations, some new types of poinsettias began to emerge: with more white bracts (aka "modified leaves"), pink leaves or those that bloomed early or later in the typical growing season. (Today, some poinsettias can even last almost to Easter, though Ecke thinks most people should toss them come January).
Paul Sr. started to use cuttings of those plants and propagated them, growing poinsettias unlike those people had ever seen; he began to patent them to protect what he had discovered.
One of the earliest varieties, for which Ecke sought a patent in 1937, was “longer and more attractive; … will bloom in a cooler temperature than other known varieties; the bracts are a clearer and more beautiful color; … will produce more perfect bloom … than any other species of Poinsettia,” he wrote.
It’s one thing to have a ranch bursting with new plants, but it’s another to try to actually sell them. By nature, poinsettias are at their best between November and January, which aligns perfectly with the Christian advent season. For that reason, Paul Sr. started to market the plants as “Christmas flowers.”
“They didn’t really have a holiday to go with them,” Ecke said, as lilies, for instance, are associated with Easter.
The name stuck and “that was really his claim to fame,” Ecke said, as the family would go on to push poinsettias across the country; in later years, the family provided poinsettias to the White House and to a number of magazines and television shows (including The Tonight Show).
In the 1960s, Paul, Jr., made the decision to move poinsettias into an indoor greenhouse, which allowed them to experiment with cuttings—which they licensed to growers across the country on a royalty system— and ship them much earlier in the year.
It also helped him start a concerted breeding program, Ecke said. Horticulturists for the first time were intentionally crossing poinsettia seeds and planting them, studying the plants that grew and finding new ways to improve them.