' “Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer, sent his office boy to the Public Library recently, with instructions to borrow some prints of holly and poinsettia.... The office boy came back in no time, with three pictures. One was of a sprig of holly. The other two were of a pointer and a setter.” -The New Yorker, “Talk of the Town.” June 1940.
One day a year, the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas opens its gates to the public. At this December's event, approximately 1,000 visitors, including 12 dogs, were given tours of selected areas at the 40-acre facility, where much poinsettia history has been made.
Although the Eckes didn't exactly invent the notion of associating poinsettias with Christmas, the seasonal omnipresence of these must-have December plants can be traced directly to the ranch. Chances are any time you see a poinsettia, anywhere in the world, it got its start in Encinitas.
One issue demystified during the tours was correct pronunciation. As The New Yorker pun suggests, some Easterners rather quaintly pronounce poinsettia as “point-setter.” While Webster's accepts either “poin-setta” or “poin-set-ti-a,” the latter is the way it's said at the ranch.
Just be glad we don't have to use cuetlaxochitel (“mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure”), which the Aztecs gave to the tropical native of Mexican jungles. Its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherima (“very beautiful”), is also a bit of a tongue twister. As the plant's popularity grew, it acquired the catchier moniker “poinsettia” in honor of the man who had “discovered” and introduced the plant to the United States in 1825: Joel Roberts Poinsett, congressman, first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, founder of the Smithsonian Institute and amateur botanist.
At the Ecke Ranch tour, no pointers or setters were among the dog group; rather, the dozen Labrador and golden retrievers were “puppies in training” for Canine Companions for Independence, a California-based group that raises dogs for the disabled. Pups must be at least 5 months old to go on such outings, which help socialize them. Accompanied by their handlers, the canines were decked out in all their finery, sporting official vests and even holiday attire.
Another burning issue regarding poinsettias: Was it prudent to expose the pups to plants generally regarded as poisonous? Guide Laurie Scullin pointed out research that says a 50-pound dog could eat the leaves off as many as 20 plants, suffer a very upset stomach and lose his lunch but still not suffer any toxic effects. He even suggested the pervasive myth surrounding the “poisonous” poinsettia might be rooted in the similarity between the words “poison” and “poinsettia.”
“We eat one here every year because we have to as part of our job,” Scullin said, without further elaboration. “They don't taste good at all.”
Paul Ecke Sr. farmed poinsettias in Hollywood in the teens and early '20s of the last century. He moved his farm to Encinitas in 1923. When Ecke Sr. bought the Encinitas acreage, the business revolved around growing cut flowers and shipping field-grown, dormant poinsettia plants by rail to florists across the country.
A poinsettia revolution occurred in the 1960s, when Ecke Jr. converted the business into a greenhouse company. The advent of cargo jets allowed the company to ship small, live-root cuttings by air to greenhouse growers all over the world. An astute marketer, Ecke Jr. donated poinsettias to not only local TV stations but also the sets of productions like Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, ensuring Americans saw poinsettias a-plenty during the holiday season. Statistics show by the late 1980s, poinsettias were the most popular potted plants in the United States. Some 7 million were sold in 1959-71 million in 1996.
With Ecke Jr.'s death this past year, things are now run by Paul Ecke III (whose son's name is Max).
“We supply a little more than 70 percent of the U.S. market and almost that worldwide,” Scullin said. “We also do something in Carlsbad called the Flower Fields. We have a line of spring plants we're selling all across the country, and...” (high-pitched microphone feedback) “Ooh! Sorry dogs!”
Next stop was the breeding area, a giant sex house for experimental poinsettias, which was being shown to tour groups for the first time ever. The breeding area houses 20,000 poinsettias-a sea of all shades of red, white, yellow, pink, coral, orange, plum and burgundy. The dogs, however, didn't seem impressed with the sight, corroborating the belief that dog vision is similar to human red-green color blindness.
“This is where we do all the sexual propagation to make new varieties,” Scullin explained. “Our breeder's name is Dr. Ruth. She hates that joke.”
The breeding cycle, from the time a new variety is first singled out to when consumers can buy it at a supermarket or florist, is about nine years.
“It's not that different from dog breeding,” Scullin said. “You might have a big, strong dog and a well-behaved dog. You breed them and hope you get a big, strong, well-behaved dog.”
Scullin noted most American poinsettia consumers are females who buy for decorating purposes, hence the push for color options. “[Plum] is a good Christmas color to decorate with,” he said. “Yellow was a bad idea. We admit that.
“You're seeing a trend towards novelty colors,” Scullin continued. “It's part of the shifting demographics in our country. The boomers are aging. Generation X are now in their mid-30s. It's interesting to watch American tastes evolve. Even in poinsettias, we're getting much braver. That's because the younger generation helps drive decisions.”
Despite the innovations, about 72 percent of what the company currently sells is red.
Although the pups seemed somewhat nonplussed by these details, they came alive when, at tour's end, they were allowed to jump up on some irrigation benches and pose for a group photo.
Then off they went for something perhaps closer to a dog's heart: lunch with their handlers at Dave & Buster's.
As an audience, “the dogs were perfect,” Scullin said. “Mixing dog people and plant people together was fun. People passionate about plants aren't that different from people passionate about animals.”