Paul Ecke Sr., a local nurseryman who perfected an obscure North American plant called the poinsettia and began a modern Christmas tradition, has died here at age 96.
Ecke, who died Friday of natural causes, was internationally known as "Mr. Poinsettia," because he took the poinsettia from a fragile outdoor plant and, through breeding, made it a hardy indoor plant whose tapering red leaves have been synonymous with the Yuletide season for more than 70 years.
So successful was Ecke's development and worldwide promoting of the plant that today the Ecke Ranch provides more than 90% of the world's poinsettia stock plants, his family said.
Although Ecke achieved a large measure of his wealth and fame through his Encinitas ranch, he began his plant business in the early 1920s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where he sold field-grown poinsettias at several roadside stands.
Ecke had taken over the family's vegetable and dairy farm in Los Angeles, where they also grew flowers, after his father, Albert Ecke, died in 1919. Albert and Henrietta Ecke and their four children had immigrated to the United States in 1902 from Germany, where Paul was born in Magdeburg in 1895.
Concerned by the rapid urbanization of Los Angeles, Ecke moved his poinsettia business to San Diego County in 1924. He and his wife, Magdalena, a native of Switzerland, purchased 40 acres of arid land in Encinitas, where he began planting poinsettia fields two years later.
At first, the Encinitas ranch produced field-grown mother plants that were harvested in the spring and shipped by railroad to greenhouse growers on the East Coast. But, in 1963, Ecke began growing the plants in greenhouses, producing small cuttings in a controlled environment. The cuttings were then shipped worldwide by air freight.
Ecke was honored with numerous horticulture awards throughout his life, but his professional achievements were also complemented by his philanthropy.
Over the years, Ecke donated substantial money to the Encinitas Union School District. He also donated 92 acres of property to the North Coast Family YMCA, Quail Botanical Gardens and the California Department of Parks and Recreation for a beach park in Carlsbad.
Ecke, who died at his Encinitas home, leaves three children: Crix Dealy of Encinitas, Barbara Winter of Fullerton and Paul Ecke Jr. of Encinitas, as well as eight grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
The family suggests that memorial contributions be made to the Casa de la Esperanza Orphanage in Tijuana. The orphanage's mailing address is Friends of Casa de la Esperanza, 17010 Pomerado Road, San Diego, 92128.