Millionaire inventors with cheap greenhouses

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2014

Back late last century I verbalized my way onto a horticulture study tour to the west side of the country. There were about twenty of us from all over. We started at the Phoenix airport and headed out by bus through the Sonoran cacti on to meet with the horticulture staffs of San Diego Zoo, Disney World, Rose Bowl stadium and other pretty plant places.
A new one on me was Ecke Poinsettia Ranch near San Diego. If you like Christmas poinsettias you need to thank the Ecke family. They are the ones who made the Mexican native tree/shrub a pot plant and perfected the timing and abundance of the colorful bracts into a holiday favorite.
The German immigrant farmer Ecke sold milk and vegetables in early 20th century California. His son Paul added ornamental flowers to the mix. He was the one who toyed with a poinsettia shrub and first used a greenhouse to trick the plant into being a winter “bloomer.”
He also was a master promoter of his Christmas plant idea. Eventually he gave potted poinsettias to Hollywood for holiday television show sets and to magazines popular with women. All the time he was improving production techniques and creating new varieties of poinsettias. His son Paul Jr. took the reins and along with staff plant breeders created most of the numerous colors, shades and variegations of poinsettias available today.
For decades Ecke pretty much had a monopoly on the poinsettia business with a few closely held production secrets. At one time, Ecke accounted for ninety percent of the poinsettia production in the world. The family business is still the world’s leader in poinsettias.
Ecke didn’t grow any of the poinsettia-potted plants you now see for sale. They long ago quit selling retail. Their business is selling millions of tiny cuttings from their patented plants to commercial growers all over the world.
The Ecke family still does their research and plant breeding in California, but the massive greenhouse production of cuttings is in Honduras. Labor cost, high value real estate and competition has moved much of California’s ornamental plant production to Central America.
Paul Ecke Jr. was still running the show back when I toured the place. I read that Paul III is now in charge and land got so valuable he sold the last ninety-seven acres of the original nine hundred to a non-profit group. But he did relocate elsewhere in the vicinity and is still working on more color patterns as well as plant sizes of poinsettias.
I recall seeing dwarf poinsettias and poinsettia vines back when I visited. But the thing I recall most about touring Ecke Poinsettia Ranch was the whole setup then was 32 acres of greenhouses all made from wood 4x4s and 2x4s painted white with visqueen stretched and tacked to the wood. Nothing was automated or computerized. I remember thinking a part-time farmer Mississippi tomato greenhouse probably cost more than these millionaire inventors of Christmas poinsettias spend on one of theirs.

Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, 601-636-7679 ext. 3.

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