COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Holiday cheer from a family business

Another San Diego legend has passed into history. The announcement of the sale of the Ecke Ranch poinsettia nursery land to a Dutch group ends four generations of a family business known around the world for its floral product that has brightened holiday homes, stores and offices for almost a century.

The curtailment of Ecke production in Encinitas impacts the local economy of the area, but most of the growing has been in Guatemala for several years while the family trimmed its local land holdings in North County. The last parcel out of the original 945 acres was sold to a nonprofit foundation that intends to protect the 67 acres from commercial development. Ecke will continue to research and improve the product in the leased greenhouses on the site.

Poinsettias will still be grown and distributed by the new owners of the Ecke brand from their extensive growing fields in Guatemala. The transition from the company’s Encinitas land to production in Guatemala, where most of the company employees worked, began years ago.

Shipping the holiday flower around the world was simplified by air freighting a billion plant cuttings to florists, who grow the plant for local sales. Ecke poinsettias account for 70 percent of the U.S. market.

It all started when Albert Ecke left his family’s spa business in Germany in 1906. Rather than traveling to Fiji to establish a spa, he stayed in Hollywood to start a fruit orchard and nursery. Albert Ecke’s interest in botany introduced him to the exotic Christmas flower from Mexico, which he began to cultivate and sell at roadside stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

The poinsettia business outgrew the Hollywood land required for field-grown plants. The founder’s son, Paul Ecke Sr., moved the business in 1923 to less developed Encinitas, where the family business expanded for the next two generations. The cultivation of hybrid plants evolved from the fields into greenhouses in 1963 under the third Ecke generation. Encinitas became popular for the vast flower fields, drawing crowds of tourists and spawning other horticulture ventures. Remaining today is the Ecke family-owned flower fields at Palomar Airport Road for other specimens that continue to attract crowds in the spring.

How did the poinsettia become the ubiquitous symbol of Christmas spirit? It was a common plant in Mexico native to Central America that found its way into American culture by diplomatic chance.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1825, studied botany and fancied the perky, bright red flower because it bloomed in the otherwise limited midwinter floral season. He experimented with the native strain to produce larger blooms and a more compact plant at his plantation in South Carolina.

Poinsett was famous for other reasons than giving his name to a holiday flower. As ambassador to Mexico, he dealt with acute diplomatic issues that eventually resulted in the war with Mexico in 1846 after he left the country. Those hostilities gave the United States cause to accelerate Manifest Destiny for American expansion to the Pacific Ocean. Another tribute to Poinsett was the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, the nation’s archive in Washington, D.C.

The trophies of the Mexican War included annexation of the territories that now encompass Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The timing was perfect to accommodate the western expansion created by the gold rush of 1849, only two years after signing a treaty with Mexico.

It was Poinsett’s discovery that put the Ecke family in business a century ago. Associated with the growth of Encinitas, the Ecke family has left its mark on the community with a generous program of philanthropy. Among many other charities and community projects is support for the YMCA and Planned Parenthood. Paul Ecke III plans to continue his community involvement and to keep experimenting with new strains of the Christmas flower.

One thing for sure, San Diego residents will always refer to their holiday floral displays as the Ecke poinsettia.


Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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