Paul Ecke, Sr. will forever be known as “Mr. Poinsettia,” for taking a winter-blooming plant from Mexico that few Americans had ever seen and turning it into a Christmas staple. Most of the more than 40 million poinsettias sold annually in the United States can be traced to the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch in Encinitas. He can also be credited for helping transform San Diego’s North County into what became known as the “Flower Capital of the World.” In addition, his generosity and philanthropy helped make San Diego Botanic Garden what it is today.
Paul Ecke and his wife Magdalena had numerous significant connections to Ruth and Charles Larabee. They were friends and neighbors of the Larabees, since their enormous ranch bordered on the north of the Garden. Ecke was a colleague of Charles when they both served on the Encinitas Rotary. Ecke was a founding member of the Board of Directors of Quail Botanic Gardens, Inc., and was instrumental in the development of Ruth Larabee’s property. He also served as the Board Representative for Ruth after she moved to Mexico in 1957.
In the early years of the Foundation, the County questioned whether the best use of some of the property would be recreational, since there was need at that time in Encinitas for playgrounds and playing fields. Ecke decided early in the 1960s to donate some of his own land to the YMCA to help solve that dilemma, and thus he rescued Ruth’s property from an alternative fate.
Ultimately Paul and his wife donated 92 acres of property to the North Coast Family YMCA, which is now named the “Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA” in her honor.
As a further gesture that helped San Diego Botanic Garden, in 1971 Ecke purchased the 4.2 acres of property used for the Scout Hut and the YMCA and donated it back to the County so it could remain part of the Garden. The Scout Hut was remodeled and named the “Ecke Family Building.” Ecke also provided large numbers of poinsettias for seasonal plantings by the parking lot in the Garden each year.
Paul Ecke and his four siblings were born in Magdeburg, Germany to Albert and Henrietta Ecke. In 1900, Albert Ecke and his family were headed to the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific to open a health spa when they stopped in Los Angeles and ended up liking what they saw. Ecke became intrigued by the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, a red and green shrub that’s native to Mexico. The Aztecs extracted dyes and a fever treatment from poinsettias. The Spanish used it as a Christmas decoration, since it blooms during the short days of winter when its upper leaves, or “bracts,” turn red. The poinsettia was named after the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who brought the plant to the United States in the 1820s.
Albert Ecke was the first to develop the poinsettia’s commercial potential. But his son, Paul had bigger ideas. He gave it a makeover through breeding and cultural techniques that turned the tall, gangly shrub into a colorful and compact potted plant.
Paul Ecke graduated from Hollywood High School and inherited the family business when his father died in 1919. At the family ranch in Hollywood, he sold off dairy pastureland to concentrate on cultivating poinsettias. He sold fresh-cut poinsettias at stands along Sunset Boulevard. But as affordable land around Los Angeles became ever scarcer, Paul Ecke turned to Encinitas in North San Diego County, where the climate was excellent, the water supply good, and the railroad reliable.
In 1924 Ecke eloped with his beloved Magdalena Maurer, a native of Switzerland. Together they purchased the 40-acre property belonging to pioneer homesteader Lemuel Kincaid, moved their operations here, and quickly became respected members of the Encinitas community.
Both Paul and Magdalena grew up in an era when people believed strongly in community involvement. During the Depression Era, the Eckes gave each of their workers a plot of land to grow vegetables, and slaughtered cattle to provide beef for their families. One of those beneficiaries was Herman Seidler, whose 10-acre property was later purchased by Ruth Larabee. When their Japanese neighbors were forced into internment camps during World War II, the Eckes offered to store possessions for some of them, at considerable risk to themselves.
Content to remain somewhat in the background, Magdalena Ecke looked after her husband and children while raising chickens, acting as bookkeeper and secretary, and feeding the ranch hands. During the Depression years, she dropped off homemade casseroles at the local community centers. Long after the California economy had bounced back, she remained deeply involved with a Mexican orphanage, driving across the border once a month with her car stuffed to the roof with as many essentials as she could squeeze in. Her friend Ruth Larabee followed her example.
In the early greenhouse days, florists had little to sell for the Christmas season. Ecke recognized that deficiency and cultivated compact varieties of poinsettia that could be grown during cool months. Initially the Encinitas ranch produced field-grown mother plants that were harvested in the spring and shipped by railroad to greenhouse growers on the East Coast. Paul Ecke continued throughout his career to develop the poinsettia into a highly successful plant, eventually introducing over 30 different strains recognized throughout the world.
Today, the Ecke family’s near monopoly on the poinsettia is gone and they have largely moved their business overseas, but they still account for 70 percent of the poinsettias sold in the U.S. and one half of the global market. In 2012 the Ecke Ranch neighboring San Diego Botanic Garden was purchased by the Leichtag Foundation.
Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb