The poinsettia has long been a symbolic plant of the Christmas season. A native of Mexico, where it is known as “flor de noche buena” or the Christmas Eve Flower. Sample were collected by Joel Poinsett, an American physician, botanist, and diplomat. He served as the first American ambassador to Mexico and many plants from Mexico were collected and evaluated by Joel in the late 1800’s. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, his father, a physician, hoped he would become a lawyer.
The poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima, a bushy member of the euphorbia family with upper leaves or bracts that color while days are short. The bright red floral bracts are designed to lure pollinators to the real flowers, which are small and potentially overlooked. This is typical of euphorbias, the flowers are unisexual, either male or female. The species epithet pulcherrima, means “most beautiful” but also speaks to the female gender of its floral parts.
From there the story gains momentum, primarily with the breeders of poinsettia and the Ecke family. In 1900 Albert Ecke moved to Los Angeles, California from Germany. He was the founder of a spa and vegetarian restaurant in Germany and came to California looking for a better climate to grow fruits and vegetables. Over the course of four generations and three moves he accumulated a lot of land, including some in Guatemala, with the sole intent of growing outside plants, including edibles. His breeding work with poinsettia began in the 1920’s. A secret technique was used to make the poinsettia a bushier plant, something he claimed was learned from a back yard gardener in Germany. The technique involved grafting to create new cultivars. The entire world marveled at his results.
The Ecke firm moved from growing (finishing) poinsettias to selling cuttings. Most of the companies work would be breeding or raising new cultivars. At one point they were the source for 70% of all poinsettia cuttings in America and half of the plants grown outside of the United States. Four generations later they would hold the patent for 30 varieties and produce 100 million rooted cuttings each year.
Paul Ecke III sold the firm in 2012. The company would continue with its breeding program and employees would keep their jobs. Real estate became much of what Paul Ecke III would be involved with. When asked what he wanted to say about poinsettias, his simple reply “They’re not poisonous”.