Family Nurtures an Enduring Holiday Symbol

Times Staff Writer

There’s a street in Hollywood named after it and a day in its honor in the United States. Native to Mexico, it’s the favorite Christmas flower of both nations. A grumpy 19th century American brought it to this country, and decades later a California family popularized it.

It is showy and colorful, but its blossoms are minuscule.

When Joel Roberts Poinsett saw the spindly red Mexican plant that would bear his name nearly 200 years ago, he had no way of knowing it would become a perennial favorite for cheerful holiday decorations. As a fairly sour-natured old statesman, he might have said “Humbug.”

Poinsett was an amateur botanist in 1825 when President John Quincy Adams appointed him the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico.


He became captivated by the bright red roadside plant that Mexicans call flor de noche buena, “flower of the holy night.”

In Mexican legend, a small boy knelt at the altar of his village church on Christmas Eve with nothing to offer but his prayers. Through a miracle, a brilliant red-and-green poinsettia sprang up at the boy’s feet.

Poinsett became deeply involved in Mexico’s politics and was soon meddling in its affairs and those of other Latin American nations. An exasperated Mexican government expelled him in 1829, declaring him persona non grata.

Poinsett took clippings of the noche buena to his South Carolina plantation, where they thrived in his greenhouse. He distributed plants to other botanists and friends. The flower became identified with him around 1836.

Poinsett became secretary of war in 1837 and helped found the Smithsonian Institution in 1841. He died Dec. 12, 1851. In 1991, Congress declared Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day.

Today the poinsettia is America’s No. 1 potted plant. Its colorful leaves -- the part most people think of as the flower -- are called bracts. The actual blossoms are the tiny green or yellow buds in the center of the bracts’ clusters.

Although the poinsettia has become a traditional symbol of Christmas, its history predates Christianity in the Americas.

Indigenous to an area south of Mexico City, the plant was prized by the Aztecs, who put it to symbolic and practical use. From its bracts, they extracted a reddish-purple dye for textiles and cosmetics. The milky white sap, called latex, helped treat fevers. The plant also represented purity, serving as a reminder of human blood sacrifices.

In the 17th century, Franciscan friars displayed poinsettias during their Christmas celebrations. The custom spread throughout Mexico.

The enduring popularity of poinsettias in the U.S. is due largely to the gardening and marketing skills of a little-known Southern Californian family.

Albert and Henrietta Ecke and their four children emigrated from Germany in 1902, planning a brief stop in Los Angeles en route to Fiji, where they planned to open a vegetarian health spa. But the rich soil and ideal climate in what would become Eagle Rock persuaded them to stay.

Albert Ecke planted fruit trees and opened a dairy farm, where he dabbled in growing gladiolus, chrysanthemums and poinsettias. The family sold them at roadside stands.

In 1906, as electric streetcars arrived in Eagle Rock and property values rose, Ecke sold his farm for $15,000. He relocated to the rather lawless town of Sherman, now West Hollywood, on Hayworth Avenue, south of Sunset Boulevard, devoting a small section to dairy cows and the rest to poinsettias.

The sight of the red poinsettia fields began drawing busloads of tourists.

A road through Ecke’s field became Poinsettia Place. Today, it extends from West Hollywood south to Hollywood and Park La Brea.

“As cows broke loose from the fencing, my great-grandfather chased them down Santa Monica Boulevard,” said Paul Ecke III, great-grandson of Albert Ecke and owner of the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas. Albert Ecke started experimenting with potted plants, shipping them east from his packing house on Sunset Boulevard.

The packing house later became the Westside Market; today, it’s the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip.

In 1918, the Eckes’ elder son, Hans, died in the influenza pandemic. His father went into decline and died the next year, leaving 24-year-old Paul Ecke in charge of the family business.

Paul bought more land in West Hollywood for $500 an acre. He began cultivating in earnest, trying to perfect the first poinsettia that could be successfully grown as an indoor plant.

He promoted it worldwide and helped found the American Florists’ Exchange, across the street from the downtown flower mart. In 1923, when urbanization encroached on his operation, Ecke moved south, to what would become 25 acres of greenhouses on 68 acres of land in Encinitas and another 60 acres in Guatemala.

A generation later, in 1949, Paul Ecke Jr. earned a degree in horticulture and went to work for his father.

He persuaded his dad to sell cuttings, which were easier to transport than mother plants.

The advent of jet air freight made it possible to quickly ship delicate cuttings to growers, who could then get mature plants quickly to market.

Paul “Mr. Poinsettia” Ecke Sr. died in 1991 at age 96. His son, Paul Jr., died in 2002 at 76.

So successful were the Eckes at developing and promoting the poinsettia that today, including licensing deals, the Ecke Ranch is the source of more than 70% of the nation’s poinsettias, Paul Ecke III said.

Today’s hybridized varieties, which decorate homes, malls and businesses, include such exotic delights as Jingle Bells, with red and pink splotches; Candy Cane, with white bracts and pink blotches; Monet, with elegant foliage of cream, rose and pink; purplish Plum Pudding; and Freedom White, the sallow hue of white chocolate.

“But there are still 100 experimental varieties in the back room, not yet released to the public,” Paul Ecke III said.

“I will always remember my grandfather telling me about the legend of a blue poinsettia in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico. He said that he looked and looked and knew that it was there, but was never able to find it.”