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Local Poinsettia Grower Pushes Boundaries

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

The poinsettia is getting a modern makeover. Consumers used to have the choice of red or… red. But demand is rising for dazzling new colors. In Encinitas, the world's largest poinsettia producer wants to change our perception of a Christmas tradition. That means pushing the boundaries of Mother Nature. KPBS Radio's Andrew Phelps has the story.

Paul Ecke III is walking to his private greenhouse on the family ranch. Seventy percent of the nation's poinsettias start here. Ecke breeds wild variations on the standard red. And he's already thinking two Christmases ahead.

Paul Ecke: We have to make decisions about the color mix for 2008 right now. We have to decide how much white, how much pink, how much strawberries-and-cream, how much winter rose, how much ice punch.

Ecke cross-breeds the plants and switches their embryos. Sometimes he fries poinsettia DNA in an X-ray machine, just to see what happens. Classic red is still the biggest seller by far. It was Paul Ecke, Sr., who first marketed the poinsettia as a Christmas plant. But today, the market for red is flat.

Ecke: On one hand we're very happy that poinsettias are the number one flowering potted plant in America. On the other hand, we don't want to see them sold, you know, 3 for 10 dollars. We think they're worth a lot more than that. So we're doing things to add value. Painting is one of those things.

Growers are increasingly ordering white poinsettias so they can spray paint them in colors nature never imagined. Sales of Ecke's white plants have jumped 10 percent a year since 2003. Nurseries and big-box stores sell these novelties for higher prices. Now more homes and hotel lobbies pop, with electric-blue and purple plants. Some are sprinkled with glitter or artificial snow. It's a jolt to the industry of Ecke's grandfather.

Ecke: There are those poinsettia purists out there that think painting is, you know, just not right. I might have started out being one of those people. But I've converted to loving anything that consumers love.

Woman: I think they're horrible.

That's one of the purists.

Woman: They go against God. To me they're, just, they're not authentic. It's just a false deal.

She won’t give her name because she sells the painted plants at a big home-and-garden store. She's also a certified nursery worker, and she thinks they're just "trendy."

Just down the road, the Armstrong Garden Center does not sell the painted variety. The manager there thinks they don't live as long. And you can't find them at Sunshine Gardens, either. Manager Howard Vieweg had never heard the idea, but he's open to it.

Howard Vieweg: Uh, you know we got some that we call salmon over here. So you know way off the red spectrum. And we have people buying them for that impact. But, you know is it something I would think of using? No. But I think it's neat and I think it's fun what they do with them. And the more variation out there, I'd say the better.

For Paul Ecke's part, he estimates at least a million poinsettias are painted this holiday season. So maybe this isn't just a fad. Anyone got a fake Christmas tree? For KPBS, I'm Andrew Phelps.

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