ENCINITAS — Every year around the holidays, there’s one question Paul Ecke III gets a lot: How exactly do you pronounce “poinsettia”?
The word is spelled with an “ia” at the end but the combination of dialects and lazy American tongues have many people pronouncing it “poinsetta,” with just a final “ah” sound.
“I don’t really care how you say it, as long as you buy one,” said Ecke.
And by all accounts, millions of Americans are buying.
The wholesale poinsettia market is worth between $300 million and $400 million a year, 80 percent of it controlled by the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas. It is estimated that 90 percent of the commercially grown poinsettias in the world today have their roots at the Ecke Ranch.
“We really do kind of take it very seriously that we’re responsible for the poinsettia piece of the holiday season. It’s a neat feeling for us to be involved. We really do feel good about our contribution to the whole season,” said Ecke, whose grandfather Paul Ecke founded the ranch in the early 1900s.
The traditional red and green poinsettia is still the most popular though there are at least 100 varieties, including white, pink and the winter rose, with its leaves blooming in a tight bunch.
One of the reasons sales remain strong is that most people don’t have the discipline to keep a poinsettia year-round. It needs constant fertilizing and, beginning in September, it must be kept in the dark 14 hours a day.
In today’s fast-paced world, that’s a lot of attention for a single plant.
“About half way through the process, they say, ‘OK, OK, I give up. I’ll just buy another one,”’ Ecke said.
Not that he’s complaining. An estimated 60 million to 100 million poinsettias will be sold in the United States this year, most during the holidays. Sales remain strong even though the market has nearly reached saturation.
Still, there is a corner of the market Ecke tries to reach each year: households with children who have a tendency to eat everything in sight – and where the myth that the plant is toxic persists.
“It’s not poisonous,” Ecke said. “Do I think people should eat poinsettias or Christmas trees or holly wreaths or candles? No. Don’t eat any of that stuff: Those are decorations. But you absolutely, positively don’t have to worry about (poinsettias) being dangerous to your health. You could not eat enough poinsettias to make you sick.”
Three generations of Eckes have been planting poinsettias and it’s Ecke’s grandfather who is credited with popularizing the winter-blooming plant during the holidays.
Its natural red and green color were a key selling point. Product placement hasn’t hurt either. Most holiday television specials have a poinsettia or two on the set and many magazines geared toward women, who purchase 80 percent of poinsettias sold, have the plant in photos of holiday decorations.
The poinsettia, which is native to Mexico, is named after the Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Today, all 50 states grow the plant but the biggest commercial producers are California with about 7 million plants and Florida with about 5 million.
“It is a very big gift product for the holidays,” said Jennifer Sparks, a spokeswoman for the Society of American Florists. “It’s taken on a life of it’s own. It really, truly has become a symbol as strongly as a wreath.”
Standing inside a greenhouse amid a sea of huge, vivid red leaves, Ecke recalled his childhood when he would run through his grandfather’s acres and acres of fields blooming with 6-foot-high poinsettias.
These days, most of the ranch has been developed with a golf course and housing, though 90 acres are dedicated to poinsettia greenhouses and research and development of new varieties. Most of the company’s cuttings business is handled in Guatemala.
As ranch workers package potted poinsettias for shipping throughout Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, Ecke is already planning for the new varieties he will offer for Christmas 2003.
“We are always thinking about Christmas,” he says.
On the Net: