The Rise of the Poinsettia
By Justin Butts
The poinsettia is a Christmas tradition built entirely upon a dream and business ingenuity. Poinsettias are a $140M industry, second only to orchids in annual sales. Harvard Business School could devote a semester to the rise of the poinsettia from its obscure origins in the jungles of Mexico.
Medicine and Red Dye
The poinsettia is native to Southern Mexico. The Aztecs cultivated the flower to make red dye and to reduce fever.
The poinsettia was named for Joel Poinsett, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. Poinsett noticed the crimson flower while on a stroll and sent plants home to his greenhouse in Charleston. Visitors to his estate admired the plant as a Christmas-blooming oddity.
Poinsettias might have then faded into botanical history, if not for the business genius of a farmer named Paul Ecke (1895-1991).
A Small Farmer with a Big Dream
Ecke was the son of German immigrants. His father left him a small farmstead in Hollywood, California, in 1919, when it was still a land of fields and forests. Ecke was poor, but he had a grand vision. He wanted to build a mighty company that would stand for generations.
With a passion for flowers and the scent of empire, he created, from scratch, an entirely new industry: the Christmas flower market.
Innovating, Adapting, and Marketing the “Christmas Flower”
Ecke focused on cut flowers because the vegetable market was too competitive. His research led him to the winter-blooming poinsettia. He thus invented a new market niche, the “Christmas flower,” to exploit and dominate.
Ecke developed an innovative grafting technology that allowed him to modify the original poinsettia (tall and leggy) into the precise colors and sizes he desired (vibrant and compact). He designed plants hardy enough to withstand the rigors of shipping while maintaining their gorgeous color and lush blooms in the homes of his customers.
When consumer tastes changed from cut flowers to potted plants, Ecke adapted by selling his poinsettia cuttings (another innovation) to local greenhouses and nurseries across the country. Ecke established a massive network of suppliers and growers in cities across America.
Ecke created a national demand for poinsettias – once again from scratch – by giving away flowers to lifestyle magazines to be included in photo shoots. He decorated the sets of television shows and Christmas musicals with poinsettias, and had celebrities pose with his flowers.
Ecke’s brilliant marketing strategies, backed by continuous innovation, created the global poinsettia industry. The Ecke family farm, an empire unto itself, was sold by Ecke’s grandson in 2012. This company, the dream of a small farmer, controls half of the national poinsettia market.
Caring for Poinsettias
Thanks to Paul Ecke, poinsettias are easy to care for. Keep your plants near a window for maximum sunshine. Water daily by misting the leaves with a spray bottle.
Poinsettias are nearly impossible to rebloom. After the holidays, toss them and simply buy new poinsettias next Christmas!