Califonia Bountiful

Red poinsettias no longer the only color for holiday decorating

November/December 2019 California Bountiful magazine

California farmers—including this family business—bring new options to the marketplace

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Earle Eisley looks over some of the 28,000 poinsettias his Placer County nursery grows every year. Eisley has been growing the holiday plants for more than five decades. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

When the Ford Model T first hit the road, an old joke went: You can have any color you want—as long as it's black. The same used to be true of poinsettias. Any color you want—as long as it's red.

Not anymore. Visit Eisley Nursery in the Placer County town of Auburn at Christmastime, and you'll find a rainbow of color.

"The poinsettias now are different than what my brother and I had," said Earle Eisley, the 88-year-old son of the nursery's founder, who started growing poinsettias in the 1960s. "We only had red and white at the time we started."

Among the colors created by plant breeders are Jingle Bells, featuring red-and-cream mottled leaves. (A variation on this theme is sold under the name Jingle Bell Rock.) You can go for all the Marbles, with their leaves of peach and pink hues. Or Cinnamon Star, which—name notwithstanding—will fill your holiday home with pale, peachy poinsettias. You can also find Autumn Leaves or Ice Punch, whose colors resemble their namesakes.

Not bad for a plant that was virtually unknown in the U.S. just a century ago.

Although red poinsettias still rule the marketplace, many new colors have joined the party—including some oriented toward Thanksgiving. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

California, poinsettia central

Poinsettias are native to Mexico; the plant was first brought to the U.S. by Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist who came across it while serving as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Still, it was an afterthought at best until San Diego County nurseryman Paul Ecke Sr. saw potential in the winter-blooming plant and, beginning in the 1920s, began growing and marketing poinsettias.

With a secret grafting process, marketing skills and the advent of air freight after World War II, business took off. Today, poinsettias are the nation's best-selling potted plant.

Ecke poinsettias remain on the market today; the line now belongs to Dutch-based Dümmen Orange. And California still holds the spot as top poinsettia state in the republic, with 51 producers selling just more than 7 million pots, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

QiuXia Chen, a Dümmen Orange junior project manager, said the Ecke genetic lines are a "very integral part of our program," accounting for 60% of the catalog. And the company still breeds poinsettias at the site of the original Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas.

"We do a lot of traditional breeding," Chen said. "We're making crosses from our breeding lines and looking at what the different seedlings are."

Lines with good qualities, such as strong stems or good flower color, might then undergo additional breeding to coax out novel colors.

Marbled and speckled poinsettias—such as the variety called Jingle Bells—first appeared in the 1970s and 1980s and were bred from red varieties, said Ruth Kobayashi, a poinsettia breeder who started her career at the Ecke Ranch and now works for Dümmen Orange. The first yellow-and-pink speckled poinsettias, called Peppermint, hit the market in 1989. Why go to the trouble of breeding new colors?

"New things can create excitement in the marketplace," Kobayashi said. "I believe colors or different types help bring consumers in the door, especially for independent garden centers."

Red plants comprise 80% of the market, Chen said, but white poinsettias are on the rise. Novelty colors are more of an impulse buy—when people go shopping, she said, "they're looking for that traditional red to be decorating for their homes or for gift items, and they see an eye-catching novelty and they'll add one or two to their baskets."

New colors are coming out every year. As examples, Dümmen Orange's new-for-2019 flier lists White Wonder (more of an off-white), Golden Glo (just what it says), Green Envy (pale green) and, on a trial basis, Frozen (solid white).

Jennifer Rousseau shops for poinsettias with the help of Eisley Nursery employee Mike Runner. They're surrounded by some of the many alternatives to the traditional red. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

A budding family tradition

Whether local customers are looking for a modern, varied palette or the traditional red and green to brighten their homes and offices for the holidays, they can turn to the Eisley family's nursery, just like they have for more than half a century.

That's when the family bought their first 500 poinsettia plants from Paul Ecke Ranch. They were looking for a winter crop to keep nursery staff busy after peak gardening season.

"They grew fine," Eisley said. "We sold the whole crop."

The Eisley family has been farming on the same property in Auburn since 1909, where Eisley's grandparents once had a fruit orchard. Eisley's mother, Lila, started the nursery in 1932, which today carries and grows a wide variety of flowers, vegetables, fruit trees and bedding plants for retail and wholesale customers.

After inheriting the family business, Eisley found himself and his family "in charge of our own destiny"—a journey he shares today with his sons and daughters, and two of his grandchildren.

Bill Eisley, above left, and his brother Jim pack poinsettias for shipment in the greenhouse. Bill runs the family's poinsettia operation. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

How to care for poinsettias 

Eisley's son Bill runs the family's poinsettia program now, which has grown considerably in the past 60 years. He buys 28,000 poinsettias a year—and he starts his holiday shopping early. Filling homes with yuletide cheer is a job that begins nearly a year in advance.

"I have to have the poinsettias ordered by the end of January," Bill Eisley said. "Poinsettias come in the last week of July. And then the first week of August is when we plant them."

They show up as rooted cuttings, which the Eisleys plant in clay pots. These breathe better than plastic and give the plants plenty of room to grow, the family says. The plant is pruned three to four weeks later to produce a fuller, bushier and more colorful poinsettia.

Bill Eisley will then move the poinsettias into the greenhouses and space them out to give them room to grow. He also manages light and temperature in the greenhouses so plants will come into color around Thanksgiving—which offers an emerging market for the plants.

"With the advent of other colors, there are some that are available for Thanksgiving, in Thanksgiving shades," Earle Eisley said, noting the varieties with amber or yellow, such as Autumn Leaves.

To sell their poinsettias, the Eisleys keep the focus regional. Besides the family's own store in Auburn, the plants can be found at nurseries in Northern California and western Nevada.

Though poinsettias are in highest demand for Christmastime, they can keep brightening spaces for months. Place them in a sunny spot away from drafts, doors and windows, and water once a week or every other week, and they should keep their color until March, the Eisleys say.

Eisley-grown poinsettias also have gone for a good cause. Sororities, schools and local charities will buy them for table decorations or to sell as fundraisers.

"Of course, that's very satisfying to us," Earle Eisley said.

But the biggest satisfaction for him is growing a crop that continues to mean something special to people.

"Most of all," he said of the poinsettia, "it's a tradition."

Kevin Hecteman

Ivy topiaries in all kinds of shapes are a holiday hit for many. Photo courtesy of Green Acres

More ways to deck the halls

Looking to expand your holiday plant inventory? Nurseries throughout California, the top nursery state in the nation, have you covered.

Start with the Christmas cactus, which, although it sounds like a desert plant, comes from the Brazilian rainforest. It gets its name from the time of year the flowers bloom, although there also are Thanksgiving and Easter varieties. You can, of course, keep it around all year long.

Denise Godfrey of Olive Hill Greenhouses in Fallbrook said red and white flowering anthuriums "are excellent selections for the holidays." As with poinsettias, anthuriums come in a wide variety of colors these days, such as pink, purple and peach.

Amaryllis is another holiday favorite. Photo courtesy of Sunlet Nursery

You also can have your very own reindeer—or an ivy-topiary version thereof. Crissa Manolis of Roseville-based Green Acres said topiaries shaped as snowmen, angels and stars sell well this time of year. Manolis is also looking to move a lot of cyclamen, in bowls and hanging baskets, and ornaments made from tillandsia, or air plants. These are plants that need no soil or pots to grow.

Christmas "trees" fashioned from rosemary and lavender plants shaped to look like tiny evergreens are among top sellers for Janet Kister of Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook, and another option for plants that offer adornment that will outlive the holidays. Amaryllis, a flowering bulb, is another popular holiday choice, she said.

Back at Eisley Nursery, chrysanthemums, living Christmas trees and mandarin trees have joined poinsettias in the horticultural holiday hit parade. "

Mandarins have kind of taken over the fruit-growing area here in Placer County," Earle Eisley said. "We sell quite a few for Christmas presents this time of year."

Eisley Nursery was founded in 1932. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

A short history of Eisley Nursery

The Eisley family has lived on the same property in Auburn since 1909, where Earle Eisley's grandparents Adam and Sarah Eisley once had a fruit orchard. When times got tough, the family got by thanks to Adam Eisley's Civil War pension. He'd served as a cavalryman in the Union Army out of Pennsylvania.

"The 30 bucks, I think it was, a month, paid the mortgage on the property," Earle Eisley said.

His mother, Lila, started the nursery in 1932, during the depths of the Depression. She took the plunge, Eisley said, because his dad, Charles, was a rural mail carrier and thus was not allowed to own a private business.

"Mom started the nursery, and my dad was through work with mail delivery about noon or 1 o'clock every day," Eisley said. "So, he had the afternoon to help Mom with the nursery, and that's how it came into being."

The family's chickens helped get the nursery going, in a way.

"My granddad and my dad had 2,000 laying hens," Eisley said. "At this point, from the fallout from the chickens, my mom decided she could grow pansies. And so they put in flowerbeds in the front of the property and raised pansies. People would come in, and they could pick out a dozen pansies and take them home. That was during the Depression."

It was a time when gold was still being mined in Grass Valley and Nevada City.

"They had jobs up there, and they had money," Eisley said. "And they would travel to Sacramento to shop."

Three generations work together at the family business. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

It helped that Highway 49 bordered the family's front yard, allowing those people to stop at Eisleys' on the way home, he added.

Earle Eisley and his brother took over in the 1950s. Retail wasn't enough to keep everyone busy, so the brothers launched a wholesale nursery. The family grew petunias, pansies, tomatoes, peppers—and, starting in the 1960s, poinsettias.

"Then we started selling to mom-and-pop nurseries within about a hundred-mile radius," he said. "Then my kids got out of school."

Today, the kids—two sons and two daughters—help Eisley run the show, along with two of his grandchildren, carrying on the more than 100-year family legacy of farming.

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