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How Poinsettias Became Synonymous With Christmas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At this time of year, bright red plants seem to pop out of nowhere, suddenly appearing in grocery stores, windowsills, your co-worker's cubicle.

DEVIN DOTSON: Today we're talking about poinsettia.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Poinsettia - yes, it's really pronounced that way.

DOTSON: There is an I before the A at the end.

SHAPIRO: That's Devin Dotson. He's the exhibit specialist at the U.S. Botanic Gardens here in Washington, D.C.

DOTSON: We have more than 3,000 total poinsettias on display this year.

SHAPIRO: They've got the classic deep red, shades of orange and pink and a sheer white that is brand-new this year.

MARTIN: All this week we've been exploring the origins of the little things that make the holidays special - eggnog, mistletoe and, today, poinsettias.

SHAPIRO: More of them are sold than any other potted flower in America - not bad for a plant that's in stores just 6 weeks per year. So how did they become the flower of Christmas?

DOTSON: Really it was the Ecke Ranch company in California that created what we have today as this quintessential holiday plant.

SHAPIRO: The Eckes, it turns out, are poinsettia royalty.

PAUL ECKE III: My grandfather, Paul Ecke Sr., did most of the heavy lifting.

MARTIN: That's Paul Ecke III. In the wild, poinsettias are large, spindly shrubs. But once in a while, you'll find one that's full of branches. Paul's grandfather figured out that if you graft one of them to another poinsettia, you can create the leafy red and green plant that conveniently blooms in winter.

ECKE: Before, there was no Christmas flower. And he decided that, why not a poinsettia because it bloomed naturally at that time.

SHAPIRO: The Eckes went on a marketing blitz. They even sent poinsettias to "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson, who turned them into a shtick with his bandleader, Doc Severinsen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

JOHNNY CARSON: He said they're poinsettas (ph). I said it's poinsettias. We almost came to actual physical violence.

MARTIN: By the 1980s, poinsettias were the best-selling potted flower in America, and 90 percent of them originated from the Ecke Ranch. But then, Paul Ecke says, things changed.

ECKE: We had a secret that nobody else knew. And a graduate student was fooling around and learned that you could graft poinsettias and get them to branch. So that person figured it out, our trade secret. And then all my competitors were off and running.

JOHN DOLE: (Laughter) That would be me.

SHAPIRO: That grad student, John Dole, is now a horticulture professor at North Carolina State University. In the late '80s, he published his findings and started giving talks. And soon there was a handful of other major poinsettia growers.

DOLE: My understanding is that Paul Ecke III not particularly happy about this development.

MARTIN: He sure wasn't.

ECKE: Doesn't matter to me anymore, but certainly caused me a little bit of grief.

SHAPIRO: In true holiday spirit, all these years later he doesn't hold a grudge. And thanks to the Ecke family, poinsettias are a fixture of Christmas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.