As surely as the wreaths that appear on front doors and Santas that pop up in shopping centers, the recent deluge of blossoming poinsettias in stores and markets can mean only one thing: it's Christmas time.
This flowery sign of the holiday season likely would not be in such abundance were it not for the efforts of Paul Ecke Jr., a second-generation poinsettia grower whose North San Diego County ranch is the world's largest supplier of the traditional Christmas flower.
"We're in the business of creating beauty," Ecke said as he surveyed his 900-acre ranch while workers prepared the final shipments of some 400,000 potted poinsettias destined for retail outlets throughout the Southwest.
"We have two goals," he said. "The first is to provide the consumer with something he or she is excited about. The other is to provide (other poinsettia) producers with a product that is going to be easier for them to produce."
Started in 1923
That second goal is the lifeblood of the Paul Ecke Ranch, named after Ecke's father, Paul Sr., who started the Encinitas operation in 1923 and serves as the ranch's senior adviser.
The ranch's 18 greenhouses, spanning 22 acres, annually provide millions of cuttings of the native Mexican plant to commercial growers throughout the United States and 25 foreign nations including, for the first time this year, China.
"Mainland China is developing an infrastructure that includes florists, and the government is (economically) backing the production of greenhouses and retail flower shops," Ecke said.
"They have recognized the need of the human soul to have flowers in their life. Poinsettias are now public policy in China."
Ecke said the ranch has grown "tenfold" in the 25 years he has been running it, but he declined to discuss the annual earnings of the multimillion-dollar operation because it is a family owned and operated business.
Ecke's chief breeder, Franz Fruehwirth, is almost one of the family after 23 years at the ranch, and Ecke said "we are what we are because of people like Franz," who has developed several of the 22 varieties of poinsettias grown at the ranch.
Fruehwirth's latest creation is the "Personal Poinsettia," a twig-like miniature plant that grows out of a thimble-full of soil one inch in diameter.
"That's the trick," Ecke said of the plant that took two years to develop. "That's why it's so unusual and why we're the only ones to do this."
The tiny flower holder hangs from the top of a four-inch-tall plastic rectangular vase, with a string wick that carries water from the vase to the soil plug.
"It's more of an art form than a production problem," Ecke said. "It's a real blend of art and science, without question. It's about the hardest thing to grow and the most difficult thing to do. This year it will be seen as a boutonniere."
Fruehwirth said he got the idea for the Personal Poinsettia during development of the Bonsai poinsettia tree.
"I love to create," he said. "You keep your eyes open and picture mentally where something could fit, and from there you keep working on it."
Although poinsettias can be grown year-round, Ecke said attempts by other growers to market them at other times of the year have failed.
"One reason I think they get a real push around the holiday season is because people in the retail business only see them once a year and they can get very excited about selling a poinsettia," he said.
"It comes with a bang, it's in, it's enjoyed, it's hectic, then you're out. So the sellers see it, deal with it, then it's gone."
Ecke said it is satisfying to produce something that is such an integral part of the holiday season, but keeping his farm on the cutting edge of poinsettia hybridization is even more important to him.
"We can always get something different, but it's a matter of getting something better," he said. "It's these different forms and sizes (of each variety of poinsettia) that gives pizazz to the whole thing."