There are three common misconceptions floating around like pollen in the air when it comes to poinsettias: They only come in red; they are limited in display options at Christmas; and they'll kill you if you eat them.
Just a quick tour around the Paul Ecke Ranch is all it takes to disperse such misplaced beliefs. In fact, all it takes is one look at an Ecke greenhouse, which, thanks to modern science, is home to poinsettias all over the red, white and pink spectrum.
As Paul Ecke III walked through one of his company's many greenhouses last week, he proudly introduced plants by their unique names. Ecke Ranch grows a number of varieties of poinsettias, including a red and white "Ice Punch," a beautiful pale pink and cream plant fittingly named "Visions of Grandeur" and a red with green and yellow leaves called "Tapestry."
There are also "Max Red" and "Polly's Pink," each bearing the names of Ecke's two children. Ecke said Max Red was not actually named for his son, Max—it was named for "maximum density on the bench."
"Because a grower cares about how many you can cram onto a bench," Ecke said. "The more you cram on, the more money you make in one envelope of a greenhouse."
Despite the very clinical story behind Max Red, it soon became the impetus for its sister plant, the bright "Polly's Pink."
"It just so happens that our son is named Max. ... We also have a daughter who's 9 years old now, but when she was about 6 years old, she came into the greenhouse on a tour … and said, 'Daddy, why does Max have a variety named after him?' " said Ecke.
Taking the poinsettia into a new era is important to Ecke Ranch—and that consideration has influenced new varieties as well as actions the company has taken.
After establishing his poinsettia business in Hollywood, Ecke's grandfather, Paul Sr., purchased property in Encinitas to grow poinsettias outdoors. After 40 years, the farming moved indoors and now plant production is mostly done offshore in Guatemala.
Ecke is quick to explain that, despite the offshore production, his family business remains an American company. "We still do research and development here; we still do research and marketing here; we have all of our corporate headquarters here," said Ecke.
Ecke Ranch is always thinking of the future, for the business as well as its customers.
"One of the things we worry about here is younger people. We don't want the poinsettia to turn into Grandma's plant or Mom's plant … so we're always trying to make stuff that's a little bit different, a little bit wacky, a little bit weird," said Ecke.
Ecke Ranch is also helping to make the poinsettia a symbol of conservation. A partnership with San Diego-based Polar Bears International, a nonprofit organization working to save the polar bear through education and research, prompted Ecke Ranch to name one of its white varieties "Polar Bear." For every Polar Bear poinsettia cutting sold, Ecke Ranch will make a donation to Polar Bears International to help the cause.
It has been a mutually beneficial relationship, Ecke said.
"Last year when we were test marketing it—last year was not a great economy—people were being very budget-conscious and poinsettia sales were tough. However, they were buying Polar Bears, because they were drawn in by the story and they were going to save the polar bear," he said.
Ecke encourages visitors to stretch their imaginations when it comes to the poinsettia. Admittedly, many of us opt for traditional red when it comes to purchasing the traditional holiday plant.
"I will often give tours and people will fall all over me about the pink one, or the orange one or green one. At the end of the tour, I'll say, 'OK, pick whatever one you want,' and guess what they always say? Red," Ecke said.
Seventy-five percent of all poinsettias sold are red, according to Ecke. "It's funny that we develop all of these new varieties, but at the end of the day, people almost always put in their shopping carts a red one," he said.
Maybe it's because the most common variety of poinsettia is red and green, the colors of Christmas. Or maybe it's because Paul Ecke Jr., Ecke's father, was so successful in his marketing efforts to pair the poinsettia with the winter holiday—he even made sure the plants were a regular feature on The Tonight Show and the Bob Hope Christmas specials at Christmastime.
Whatever the reason, with so many other options available, falling to a default position toward the poinsettia shortchanges a plant that has more possibilities than a fixture you merely place around the house at Christmas.
To spread the word about poinsettias' many alternative decorative uses, the Ecke Ranch created an area to give growers and retailers ideas about decorating. "We've evolved from just breeding new varieties and producing the cuttings into what we call the design center. It's not just about the naked pot anymore. It's about 'What can we do?' Combine it with succulents. Combine it with high fashion elements," said Ecke.
Finally, although many still cling to that old wives' tale that poinsettias are dangerous, Ecke claims the flower actually poses no more threat than your average houseplant. The urban myth regarding a poinsettia's poisonous leaves is exactly that: a myth, he said. Ecke sighed when the subject was brought up and quickly popped a leaf into his mouth. At press time, Ecke is still a healthy guy.
"Poinsettias are not poisonous," said Ecke, who can't say for sure how the falsehood spread. What he does know is his father commissioned a study with Ohio State University, which revealed, after feeding 400 leaves to rats, that poinsettias were not fatal. Moreover, another study revealed that the main reason people went to the hospital for poinsettia poisoning was fear rather than reality—no one died after ingesting poinsettias.
"Do I recommend you eat your holiday decorations? No, I don't. Don't eat your Christmas tree. … But poinsettias are not poisonous," he said.