Children are said during the holidays to have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads—although it is unclear how many children today know what a sugar plum is—but the poinsettia remains the favorite of holiday home decorators. Its multitude of colors, range of sizes, and rich varieties make the poinsettia a classic touch for holiday decorating at home, office, or school. Who can resist picking up one or many for a pop of color as the season gets into full swing?
It is estimated that poinsettias contribute more than $250 million to the U.S. economy in annual retail sales. Not surprisingly, the poinsettia is the most popular potted plant in America, with the most concentrated sales during the six-week period leading up to Christmas, generating $60 million. California ranks as the top poinsettia-producing state in America.
But just where did this vibrant, festive plant come from, and how does it relate to patents?
History and Origin
America is not the only country producing poinsettias, nor was it the home origin of the plant scientifically known as Euphorbia pulcherrima. The poinsettia is native to Mexico. It can be found in deciduous tropical forests at moderate elevations down the Pacific coastline from Mexico to Guatemala. They also thrive in the interior of Mexico in some hot, seasonally dry forests.
In Mexico, cultivation of poinsettias has been traced back to the Aztecs. They used parts of the poinsettia to create reddish-purple dyes for fabrics as well as medicine. It is said that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, had poinsettias delivered by caravan to his capital at what is now Mexico City because they could not be grown in the high altitude.
The poinsettia was first introduced to the Unites States in 1828 by botanist, physician, and first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett. He had come across the plant in southern Mexico and sent cuttings of it back to his home in Charleston, S.C. The poinsettia subsequently received its name in his honor.
The Ecke Family
In 1900, Albert Ecke emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles, Calif., where he opened a dairy and orchard. He began selling poinsettias on city streets. His son Paul and grandson Paul Jr. took the small business to new levels by developing a grafting technique to create fuller, compact plants. This change made it possible for every seedling to branch and thus produce a bushier plant rather than the weedy look of the naturally occurring poinsettia.
The Eckes also marketed the plants as a holiday favorite. To increase the scope of their business, the family relocated to Encinitas, Calif., where they established the Ecke Family Ranch. For nearly 100 years, the Eckes produced variation after variation of poinsettias, featuring an array of colors and foliage shapes. With each new variety they developed, the Eckes acquired plant patents to protect their inventions. As a result of their ingenuity, the Eckes held a virtual monopoly on the poinsettia market until the 1990s when their grafting method was independently discovered and published by a university researcher, opening the door for competitors to join the marketplace.
In 2012, Paul Ecke III made the difficult decision to sell both the family business and ranch, but the Ecke name lives on, as the company still produces a significant amount of the poinsettias sold in the United States and across the world.
The Ecke family is credited with creating a unique and wonderful American legacy. The family holds roughly 500 U.S. plant patents, either granted to one of the Eckes or assigned to the Ecke Family Ranch. This vast and colorful patent portfolio is a tribute to the ingenuity and passion of their vision, technological talent, and business acumen.
National Poinsettia Day is December 12th
U.S. Plant Patents
The patent most people think of is known as a utility patent, which protects new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.
The vast majority of patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are in fact utility patents. But you can also obtain a design patent—think of a unique product shape—or a plant patent.
A plant patent is a grant by the U.S. government to an inventor (or the inventor's heirs or assignees) who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. By “asexually reproduced,” this means that the plant is propagated without the use of genetic seeds, ensuring that an exact genetic copy of the plant is reproduced. There are a number of ways to asexually reproduce plants, including grafting, division, slips, rhizomes, and root cutting, among others. The grant, which like other patents lasts for 20 years from the date of filing the application, protects the inventor's right to exclude others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced. More than 23,000 U.S. plant patents have been issued since the Plant Patent Act of 1930.
Plant patent applications for years required full-color drawings of the new varieties embodied by the plant. The submitted drawings were often beautiful works of art, rendered in water color, oil paints, or color pencil. Today, color drawings may still be submitted, but most applicants prefer to provide a photograph of the plant instead.
To learn more about U.S. plant patents, what they protect, and how to file an application, visit the USPTO’s online guide to plant patents.
Plant patents are an interesting and often overlooked part of the U.S. intellectual property system. These eye-catching patents provide protection for many of the trees, shrubs, flowers and other vegetation beautifying our homes and indoor and outdoor spaces, including more than 100 varieties of poinsettias. This holiday season, you just might find yourself marveling at the beauty of a poinsettia. While you’re at it, take some time to reflect on how our intellectual property system helped bring you that beauty, and how less colorful our lives might be without patents and trademarks.