Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Hollywood and Poinsettias

Poinsettia Postcard
A postcard c. 1908 of poinsettias, “California’s Christmas flower,” listed on EBay.

Euphorba Pulcherrima, better known as the poinsettia plant, has been popular in Los Angeles since the late 1800s. Some call it flor de fuego (fire flower) or flor de la noche buena (flower of the holy night) because of its bright red leaves or bracts. First used as centerpieces or accents during the holiday season, since the leaves turn color quickly during the shorter winter days, the blazing plant gained popularity at the hands of Hollywood residents, now one of the most popular flowers highlighting homes across the United States at Christmas.

Indigenous in Mexico and Central America, these bright red and green plants grow as shrubs and small trees as tall as 13 feet. The Aztecs employed the striking flower for medicinal purposes, such as healing pulmonary infections.

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Poinsettia Postcard

A postcard showing a poinsettia field in Hollywood, listed on EBay.

First described as a new species by German scientist Johan Friedrich Klotzch in 1834, it gained its common name poinsettia in 1836 thanks to its American propagator, Joel Roberts Poinsett. The first United States minister to Mexico, Poinsett served as a state representative in South Carolina and later a United States congressman before his nomination to the post. In 1828, he signed the first treaty between the United States and Mexico recognizing the U.S.-Mexican border.

During his time in Mexico, Poinsett fell under the spell of the scarlet plant, bringing some back to his South Carolina plantation. Over the next several years, he grew cuttings from the plants, passing them off to friends who transported them across the country. By 1836, the scarlet flower was named for Poinsett. Plants dotted the Los Angeles and Hollywood areas by the late 1880s, with residents decorating their homes with the gorgeous specimens around Christmas.

In 1902, German immigrant Christoph Heinrich Albert Ecke, his wife, and four children arrived in what is now Eagle Rock to set down roots. Variously called a professor from Heidelberg University or a former operator of a vegetarian sanitarium, Eck established a dairy and plant farm.

Poinsettia Postcard The family experienced tragedy in 1904 when oldest son Hans accidentally shot and killed his sister Margaret with what he thought was an unloaded gun. Unable to speak English, father Albert was first accused of the killing before others interpreted his words. Devastated, the family looked to move on.

In February 1906, Ecke purchased land and commissioned an architect to design a six-room bungalow on what is now Hayworth Avenue on the border of Hollywood and West Hollywood. Ecke and his family operated a dairy and plant farm at his new location. Becoming fascinated with the bright red poinsettia, Ecke began growing them on his property.

Hollywood loved the poinsettia too, naming a street Poinsettia Place in the early 1900s, located not far from the Ecke residence. Hollywood High School titled its school year book “The Poinsettia” in honor of the plant, and eye-catching colored linen postcards illustrated the giant fields of red flowers as well. In 1915 and 1916, the city even threw the poinsettia festival at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament over three days at the end of November and beginning of December.

Ecke’s poinsettia sales skyrocketed, and in 1910 he rented land at Fountain Avenue and Fairfax Avenue for $150 per the May 21, 1924, Hollywood Evening Citizen News and opened a roadside stand to sell the colorful plants at the holiday season. Popular with residents, the poinsettias sold well, leading Ecke to rent more land.

Poinsettia Postcard
Poinsettias on a postcard listed on EBay.

After becoming a naturalized citizen in 1917, the older Ecke passed away in San Bernardino in 1919. Youngest son Paul took over operation of the concern, expanding and growing the business. In 1919, he purchased land at 7362 Sunset Blvd. and constructed a small bungalow for his dairy and home before building a store next door at 7366 Sunset to help sell the vivid plants.

By May 1921, he rented an additional 15 acres at Crescent Junction near the current intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard to plant poinsettias. Sales continued to explode.

Leasing and buying almost 25 acres near Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive at what would be 9032 Sunset Blvd. a few years later, Ecke grew poinsettias almost in the shadow of the Doheny mansion, employing Mexican laborers to help him cultivate the plants. He experimented with hybrids, developing the very popular poinsettia variety, the Hollywood, which stood 6 feet to 8 feet tall with leaves 12 inches in diameter. Ecke would later create varieties he named after both of his parents, the Albert and Henriette.

He stated that Mrs. Enteman of Jersey City, N.J., began selling the first potted poinsettias in 1923, which he capitalized on. During an interview with the Citizen News in October 1924, Ecke revealed he sold 400 dozen blossoms in one day to the Los Angeles flower market.

Requiring extra land to fulfill his growing orders, the “Poinsettia King” Ecke purchased almost 40 acres of land in Encinitas, near San Diego in 1924. By 1930, he grew 150 acres of poinsettias there, along with the 30 acres in West Hollywood, before eventually selling this land in the 1940s.

A marketing whiz, Ecke publicized his plants in newspaper and magazine stories, later reaching out to broadcast media radio and television. Poinsettias grew in popularity across the United States, becoming ubiquitous as a decoration during the Christmas holiday season. Hollywood and its marketing prowess sold the beauty of poinsettias to the world, making them synonymous with Christmas decorating.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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