Issue: Winter 2013-14
The Poignant Poinsettia
The spectacular plant that makes its grand entrance each holiday season has distinctive American roots that spans centuries and cultures.
The plant flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The ancient Aztecs called it cuetlaxochitl and extracted a reddish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The milky white sap was made into a preparation to treat fevers. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, would have poinsettias brought into what is now Mexico City by caravans because poinsettias did not grow in the high altitudes.
The poinsettia may have remained a regional plant had it not been for Joel Roberts Poinsett. The son of a French Huegenot physician, Poinsett had a distinguished record of public service under Presidents James Madison and Andrew Jackson. Having served as a U.S. emissary to South America, he was appointed the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico by President John Quincy Adams in 1825. At the time of his appointment, Mexico was involved in a civil war and a hotbed of political activity. During his stay in Mexico he pursued his passion for horticulture and wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. Even though Poinsett had an outstanding career as a United States Congressman and as an ambassador he will always be remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.
Little documentation exists on how the poinsettia arrived in California, possibly introduced by the Franciscan Friars who established the missions and the pueblos along their route from New Spain (Mexico). We do know that Albert Ecke arrived in the Hollywood area with his family in 1900. Intrigued by the prospect of a year round growing climate, he intended only a brief stay on his way to Fiji to open a vegetarian health spa on the island. However, the abundant fertile land, climate and growing population convinced Ecke to remain in California. He established a fruit orchard and dairy farm but his real love was flowers, and he dabbled in growing several varieties. Initially settling in Eagle Rock, the family moved to Hayworth Avenue in Hollywood in 1906. Soon, the family’s role in Los Angeles flower industry was firmly established. Son, Paul, graduated from Hollywood High School in 1915 and the school’s yearbook was called “The Poinsettia.”
Of particular interest to Albert Ecke, and even more so to his son Paul, was the tall, leggy red plant that grew wild throughout the area. The poinsettia's yearly cycle of blooming during the winter, near the holiday season, gave Paul the idea that this would make an ideal official holiday flower. But the question remained: how to promote and market a plant that most people had never heard of or even seen, let alone associate it with the holiday season?
They began production of field grown blooming plants at the ranch on Sunset boulevard selling them at roadside stands in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area. The automobile was gaining popularity and residents and visitors from the East and Midwest were motoring wherever roads would take them and, in the winter, they passed the colorful flower stands filled with poinsettias.
As the Hollywood area became increasingly developed, the Eckes had to find other land on which to expand their flourishing business. Their search ended in the little town of Encinitas, approximately two hours south of Los Angeles. A good water supply, cooling ocean breezes, and the close proximity to rail transportation made the location as close to perfect as Paul could have hoped. In 1923, the Ranch moved south to Encinitas where it continued to thrive. Today, the Ecke Ranch is run by Albert Ecke’s great-grandson, Paul Ecke III, and over 75% of the poinsettias grown in North America–and 50% grown in the world–get their start at the Paul Ecke Ranch.
Another Hollywood success story. DH