Paul Ecke III drives his pickup truck north on Interstate 5 in southern California, recalling the sea of poinsettias that once covered thousands of sun-splashed acres farmed by his family when he was growing up in San Diego County in the 1960s.
“It was glorious when the red came in,” says Ecke, 51, the third-generation owner of the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif. (pop. 58,014).
Nowadays, as Christmas draws near each year, hundreds of thousands of poinsettia plants bloom in greenhouses on the ranch and millions of Ecke-bred poinsettias are sold to decorate homes, businesses and churches around the world. Ecke Ranch is the world’s largest producer of poinsettias, providing 50 percent of the world’s—and 75 percent of the nation’s—supply. “We like to think that poinsettias are nature’s way of dressing up the holidays,” says Andy Higgins, a horticulturist and president of the Paul Ecke Ranch. “They’re like the bow on the package.”
Poinsettias have not always been synonymous with Christmas. Once considered a flowering roadside weed in Mexico, the gangly plant was brought to the United States in 1828 by Joel Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico and an amateur horticulturist. In June of the following year, poinsettias were introduced to the public at an exhibition that was the precursor of today’s Philadelphia Flower Show.
A century later, Ecke’s grandfather began cultivating poinsettias in California and selling the ornamental plant as a Christmas flower. “It was brilliant marketing,” says William LeFevre, executive director of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, America’s oldest botanical garden. “Here you have this wonderful showy red plant you can provide people at the holidays. It was a winner.”
The first Paul Ecke arrived in Los Angeles at age 5 with his parents who, like many other German immigrants at the time, worked the land for a living. “His parents never learned to speak English, so he had to take my great-grandfather to the flower and produce market in L.A. and translate for him,” Paul III says. “So he learned business at a very young age.”
Launching his own business, Ecke focused on cultivating the red poinsettias that had migrated West over the decades and were growing wild in California. “My grandfather sort of stumbled upon it,” says Paul III, who estimates the family business began between 1915 and 1920. “Poinsettias bloom naturally at Christmastime when the daylight hours get shorter. There was no official Christmas flower in those days, and he decided to fill the gap” by selling the cut flowers at a roadside stand on Sunset Boulevard.
As Los Angeles developed into an entertainment industry hub, Ecke moved his farming operation south in 1923 to the beach towns of Encinitas and Carlsbad, eventually growing poinsettias on 4,000 acres. “One year in the 1930s, my grandfather woke up to a hard freeze and every plant was dead,” Paul III recounts. “They went out and dug beneath the soil line and the roots were alive. They reproduced from the roots and saved the business.”
In 1955, Paul Ecke Jr. returned from Ohio State University with a degree in floriculture and new ideas about running his father’s business. Instead of shipping poinsettia rootstock by rail to growers around the country, Paul Jr. advocated shipping less-expensive plant cuttings by airplane and moving the poinsettias from farm fields into climate-controlled greenhouses.
“I can remember some very heated arguments between my dad and my grandfather during this time,” Paul III says. “My father would say, ‘This is the future. Why can’t you see?’ And my grandfather would dig in his heels. Finally, my dad prevailed, thank goodness. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today.”
As the family began replacing open fields with greenhouses in the 1960s, Paul Jr. took marketing to the next level. “He wanted to have a poinsettia in every house at Christmas,” Paul III says. “So he gave poinsettias to the sets of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the Dinah Shore Show and Christmas specials by Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan. He got them into the women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens. It was subliminal advertising at its earliest. The women would open their magazines and see these nicely decorated homes with a Christmas tree and poinsettias everywhere, and then they would head to the florist and ask for poinsettias.”
During the same time, Paul Jr. launched a breeding program to improve and expand the ranch’s product line. Previously, Mother Nature provided occasional new varieties through mutation. But Paul Jr. saw no reason to wait on nature to develop stronger, more beautiful poinsettias in various shades of red, white and pink. “Even though he didn’t have any competition, my dad was very forward-thinking,” Paul III says.
When Paul III bought the company in 1992 at age 37 after earning a master’s of business administration degree from Duke University and working a stint at Hewlett-Packard, the Ecke Ranch faced competition from foreign growers for the first time. “Even though we had almost 100 years of loyalty from our customers, they were getting squeezed by the big-box stores and our new competitors were growing offshore and selling cuttings at half our price,” he says.
In response, the ranch moved much of its growing operations to Guatemala beginning in 1997, invested in technology to improve the ranch’s efficiency and diversified its product line to include other floral plants, including geraniums, impatiens and chrysanthemums.
Still, the poinsettia remains Ecke Ranch’s signature product and, though sold only six weeks a year, is the world’s top-selling potted flowering plant. Each year, the company’s 1,000 employees in the United States, Guatemala and Mexico breed and produce more than 50 million poinsettia cuttings in 60 varieties under 100 acres of greenhouses.
“We can’t rest on our laurels,” says Paul III, whose grandfather and father died in 1991 and 2002, respectively, and entrusted the family business to him. “At the end of the day, you have to have more than heritage and name recognition. You have to have a good product. I’m reminded of that with every shipment.”
Visit www.ecke.com for more information.