The persistent poinsettia

Once picky plants, poinsettias have been bred to last a long, long time

If you like poinsettias, then the Paul Ecke Ranch is paradise. Some 80 percent of all poinsettias sold in the United States - and more than half in the world - get their start here at this fourth-generation-run ranch just north of San Diego.

All of the growing is done in greenhouses. (They've been doing it that way for almost 40 years.) And do they have a lot of greenhouses: 35 acres' worth.

Until 1963, large poinsettia "mother plants" were grown in fields and then shipped by rail to greenhouse growers across the country. Growers then took cuttings and grew full-size flowering plants for retailers in their areas.

But two factors changed the business, not to mention the poinsettia, forever: the advent of airfreight, combined with the introduction of a new long-lasting variety that could be grown in greenhouses from the start - and that often lasts until Easter, given proper care.

So, rather than ship big (not to mention fragile) poinsettia plants to growers, the ranch started propagating its own cuttings and then flying them to greenhouses worldwide, which was much more economical.

If you're among those who think all poinsettias look alike, guess again.

There are about 200 varieties on the market today - the ranch produces about 60 different patented types, which they think are the best. (And plenty more are in the works.)

Their names are as unique as the plants themselves.

How about: Strawberries 'N Cream, a mix of cream and dark pink; Holly Point, which has variegated green and gold foliage; and, new this year, Plum Pudding - the first purple poinsettia.

Still, red is the most popular color, accounting for roughly 75 percent of all poinsettia sales. How many did we buy last year? Nearly 70 million, according to the US Department of Agriculture - although the ranch contends that the number is about 10 to 15 percent higher.

As I wind up the private drive, row upon row of white greenhouses comes into view.

The only crop of poinsettias the Ecke ranch actually sells in bloom are those it ships to nearby wholesalers and retail florists in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

The ranch will send approximately 400,000 flowering poinsettias to those states - and what a sight they are. Inside one greenhouse, a sea of red, pink, and yellow poinsettias - 10,000 or more - ripples from wall to wall.

"Are you tired of seeing poinsettias yet?" asks chief executive Paul Ecke III, a businessman as much as a flower guy.

It was his great-grandfather, Albert, who started growing poinsettias in Hollywood, Calif., back in 1911. Call it a true Hollywood story - he used to grow them along Sunset Boulevard.

In 1923, the ranch moved to its current location, because of the excellent growing climate, good water supply, and proximity to railroad transportation.

But back to the tour.

For the majority of poinsettias - those destined for distant locations - the road to becoming the holiday centerpiece is quite a different story.

Most start here at the ranch - but they start as cuttings, a piece of a poinsettia cut from a larger plant. The cuttings are taken in July, when most consumers are firing up their barbecues and shooting off fireworks, not thinking ahead to December.

Each year, the ranch ships via airfreight several million cuttings to growers in more than 50 countries - everywhere from Europe to China. The growers then finish growing the plants to blooming size in their own greenhouses and distribute them locally for the holidays.

Yet another big part of the business is breeding poinsettias.

If you've never cared about plants in the past, this will get your attention. Think "Jurassic Park," but with pots instead of petri dishes.

"People talk about cloning. We've been doing that for years in a lower-tech way," Mr. Ecke explains.

A trip through "the breeding greenhouse" shows how far this plant - a native of Mexico - has come since Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to the US in 1828.

Inside one section of the building, 10,000 pots of poinsettias line table upon table.

"Each one of these plants is unique," says Paul Ecke Jr., who has since turned the operation over to his son, but still spends plenty of time on site. It was Mr. Ecke and his father, Paul Ecke Sr., who tirelessly promoted the poinsettia and turned it into a holiday symbol.

The ranch breeds poinsettias each December. The seeds are harvested in May. The following December, each plant is evaluated - based on 25 to 30 different criteria - to see if it might be "the next big thing."

Competition is stiff.

"Less than 1 percent make it out of the first phase," says Ruth Kobayashi, poinsettia breeder at the Ecke Ranch.

But that's just the first phase. For a plant that eventually makes it to market, the entire breeding and selection process can take anywhere from five to 10 years.

Sometimes it takes longer. Winter Rose, which hit shelves in 1997 and is the first poinsettia with curly bracts (the showy "petals" of the plant) took more than 30 years to develop.

The ranch also puts top contenders through a simulation of what life might be like with the average consumer - i.e., ultimate neglect.

"It's a thorough test," Paul Ecke III quips.

In the end, it comes down to one day, a dozen or so people, reams of data, and eventually a vote - kind of like the NFL draft.

Choosing a name seems to be less systematic. Anybody can have a go at it. (I even tried my hand at naming a poinsettia - I chose "Bubble Gum" for a gorgeous pink variety that I liked.)

Coincidentally, the No. 1 poinsettia variety in the US, which has been around for about 10 years, happens to be named Freedom.

What could be more appropriate this year?

Poinsettia tips
Location and temperature

Poinsettias thrive on bright, natural daylight; at least six hours daily is recommended. Placing your poinsettia near a sunny window is ideal, but be careful of locations where the hot afternoon sun may shine directly on colorful bracts. Ideal temperatures should not exceed 70 degrees F. during the day or fall below 65 degrees F. at night. Avoid placing plants near drafts, fluctuating air currents, excess heat, or dry air from appliances, fireplaces, or ventilation ducts.

Watering

Poinsettias do best with moist soil - not too wet and not too dry. Water when the soil's surface feels dry to a light touch. Use enough that water begins to seep through the drain holes. Be sure to discard any excess water in the saucer or bottom of a decorative pot, as roots may rot when poinsettias are left sitting in water.

After the holidays

You can enjoy your poinsettia throughout the year as an attractive green foliage plant. At the end of March or in early April, when the bracts age and turn to a muddy green, cut the stems back about half their length to encourage new growth. By the end of May, you will see vigorous new growth as the plant develops more lush green foliage. Keep the plants near a sunny window.

You may place your plants outdoors when night temperatures are warm. Water regularly during the growing period. Fertilize every two to three weeks throughout the spring, summer, and fall months with a houseplant fertilizer.

Around June 1, you may wish to transplant your poinsettias into bigger pots, about two to four inches larger in diameter than the original pot. Use a soil mix that incorporates a considerable amount of organic matter, such as peat moss or leaf mold.

You may also try planting poinsettias in a flower bed that contains well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Poinsettias do best in a protected area, preferably along a south garden wall. Immediately after transplanting, be sure to water thoroughly. Near July 4, cut stems back again to about half their length.

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