Egon Molbak almost gave up on the United States. Housing was expensive, jobs were few. He sent his wife and young daughters back home to...

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Egon Molbak almost gave up on the United States. Housing was expensive, jobs were few. He sent his wife and young daughters back home to Denmark and spent the summer in a rented room, looking for one last chance to stay in America.

He found a small nursery for sale in rural Woodinville. The nursery came with a tiny house and a blue panel truck. Molbak had a degree in horticulture, a green thumb and some ideas.

Fifty years after purchasing that little nursery in December 1956, Molbak and his wife, Laina, are celebrating what has become a holiday tradition for many area residents: the Molbak’s Poinsettia Festival.

Five decades ago, poinsettias were so fragile they lasted only a day or two and were considered a novelty.

Today, the festival features some 42,000 long-lasting poinsettias — 52 varieties — along with hundreds of holiday ornaments and free refreshments. (The poinsettias weathered the power outage thanks to generator power that kept the nursery area from freezing and enabled the store to operate. Power was restored to downtown Woodinville on Monday afternoon.)

Woodinville, a small village when the nursery opened, incorporated in 1993 and has grown to about 10,000 residents. No longer considered the boondocks, the suburb is a niche for wineries.

Molbak’s Poinsettia Festival

Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (through Dec. 24); 13625 N.E. 175th St., Woodinville. Free admission; features 52 varieties and more than 42,000 poinsettias. Free coffee and Danish Kringle samples.

Egon and Laina Molbak Endowment for the East King County YWCA: Donations can be sent to 16601 N.E. 80th St., Redmond, WA 98052. For information, call 425-556-1350

The nursery the Molbaks purchased now attracts 1 million visitors a year.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the Molbak family involvement in the community. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, the Molbak family launched the Egon and Laina Molbak Fund, with a $25,000 endowment for the East King County YWCA. Donations will help homeless women and children.

Earlier this year, their son, Jens, surprised his mother by naming a new dahlia after her.

“I didn’t know about it until he handed me a package of the bulbs,” she said.

Laina helped launch the first Poinsettia Festival, a party for vendors, in 1971. It was just one weekend and considered a success when 400 to 500 people attended. By 1975, the festival was open to the public. It has since become a destination — buses bring fans from California, Idaho and Oregon.

It all began because Egon Molbak was fascinated with America.

He first came in 1948 for an exchange program run by the American-Scandinavian Foundation. His interest in all things American blossomed while working for Crissey’s Florist, then the premier flower shop in Seattle. In 1950, he and Laina honeymooned by taking a ship to the U.S. and a bus to Seattle. Their bankroll was $100. Six years later they settled in Woodinville.

“People were very kind,” Egon said. “Almost everyone around then is gone now. We’ve gone from being new to being the old-timers. It is amazing how quickly one becomes part of history.”

When they took over the nursery, the main crops were carnations, mums and sweet peas for the cut-flower market. Molbak added potted and bedding plants. He developed a technique for growing shorter chrysanthemums, which meant mums could be sold as a plant in a container instead of just being used as a cut flower — a boon to the nursery industry.

The Molbaks opened their nursery at the right time. Suburbs with spacious yards were sprouting, and homeowners wanted plants. They experimented with retail sales, opening briefly from April to June.

“We sold plants in front of the building and in the first greenhouse,” Laina said.

They tore down the decrepit greenhouses and rebuilt in 1970. Garden tools and supplies were added when they expanded retail to year-round. Then came the lines of cards and gifts.

As the nursery grew, so did the couple’s involvement in the community: Laina in the schools and Girl Scouts and social-service activities; Egon in Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, civic committees and horticulture groups and associations. Both Laina and Egon have been honored for their volunteer work and their work in Danish and Scandinavian clubs. They support the arts, too. Egon and the nursery have received numerous horticultural awards, including the Great American Gardener Award from the American Horticultural Society in 2003. He was inducted into the National Floricultural Hall of Fame in 1991.

There were periods of growth. In the early 1980s, they purchased the Seattle Garden Center at Pike Place Market and land in Redmond for off-site greenhouses. From 1998 to 2002, they had a store at University Village.

There have been a few weeds in their garden, too.

A few years ago the family business was on the brink of bankruptcy. All four Molbak children — daughters Heidi Molbak, Ellen Jones and Kirsten Molbak Patterson, and son, Jens, have all been involved in the company at various times. But it was Jens who in 2002 stepped in to prune the operation. (Jens Molbak started Coinstar, which put coin-counting machines in grocery stores.) His nurturing has revitalized the nursery.

At the age of 81, Egon has graduated from daily operations, but he keeps his green thumb on the nursery’s pulse. He maintains an office on site and occasionally attends the morning employee meeting before the store opens.

Laina devotes her free time to the YWCA and was instrumental in the drive to get the Y’s Family Village in Redmond built a decade ago. Even after more than three decades, the couple still enjoy the poinsettia festival. “It seems like there are new ones each day,” said Laina.

Egon, however, thinks like the nurseryman. “It’s funny,” he said. “By the time the poinsettias are out here, I’m thinking of the season ahead. At the greenhouses we’re now working on spring things.”

Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or