Poinsettia is the world’s most popular potted plant, bearing such irresistible aesthetic qualities that we snap them up from nurseries at a rate of nearly $200 million per year, almost entirely during the month of December. Until recently, commercial poinsettia production was 100 percent dominated by the Ecke family of southern California, who unlocked the secret to propagating them in the form we have come to love today back in 1923.
In their native habitat in Mexico and Central America, poinsettias grow as small spindly trees up to 15 feet in height, with a rather homely appearance. However, the nurseryman Paul Ecke discovered that grafting two different varieties together caused seedling-sized poinsettias to branch out into a short bushy form with lots of the red flowers, producing the Christmas-themed plant that we have come to love (though the flowers are actually a type of modified leaf, called a bract).
Only in the last 20 years were other botanists able to duplicate this petit form of poinsettia after they discovered that the dwarfing effect was not the result of grafting, so much as a bacteria that was introduced from one variety to the other in the process of grafting. The Eckes never actually knew the science behind their technique; they just knew that it worked. With the secret out of the bag, however, other poinsettia growers have set up shop, reducing the Ecke’s share of the market from 100 percent down to about 70 percent today.