Last week marked the end of an era when the renowned plant collector, Harlan Hamernick, died tragically. He lived very near to the farm where I grew up and I was lucky to have met him on a few occasions. He started a business in 1958 that grew phenomenally out of his passion for collecting plants and breeding those exhibiting special characteristics and qualities suitable for landscape cultivation. This business, Bluebird Nursery, grew until it covered ten acres with greenhouses and now supplies 49 states with bedding and vegetable plants. This is why —chances are— he touched many of your lives and you never knew it.
Harlan was a plant collector who wore cowboy boots. He, by paying attention to details that the rest of us seldom notice, accomplished extraordinary things in life. For example, I heard him tell about how he’d drive through the Sandhills of Nebraska searching for rare red yucca variants. If he spotted a plant he thought was unusual, he’d leave a marker on the nearby barbed wire fence so he could come back and find it the next year. His stories about the exceptional lengths he went to in search of plants were highly entertaining. Though he didn’t seek the spotlight, he loved to tell stories and enjoyed speaking about his passion, glad to share his knowledge with others.
In Lincoln, I had friends who were amateur plant collectors and appreciators. Though we didn’t always acknowledge it, Harlan was part of the reason there were so many of us there who’d adopted this special interest. We all had one favorite day of the year, a Saturday in April called “Spring Affair”. Bluebird Nursery provided thousands of plants for sale on that day in a huge building on the Nebraska State Fairgrounds. It was an elbow to elbow madhouse of plant aficionados that tried to arrive in the first hour because the rare plants wouldn’t last long, especially in the small corner called “Harlan’s Specials”.
In the last five years, Harlan focused on woody shrubs and trees that had unique survival characteristics for the harsh conditions of the Plains. He was interested in medicinal and nutritive plant qualities, too, and paid attention to what the native Americans had used and survived on.
I now live close to another spot that Harlan was fond of, the Denver Botanic Gardens. It has a world class alpine plant collection under the guidance of Harlan’s friend, Panayoti Kelaidis. This garden includes about 600 plants that Harlan developed. Panayoti is a leading global alpine plant expert and refers to Harlan as one of the two or three top plantsmen in the whole nation. Not bad for a guy who never had a formal education in horticulture.
Harlan traveled to Tibet, China, and Mongolia on plant hunting expeditions because he said that those regions were inhospitable for plants, not unlike Nebraska with its climate extremes. When we moved to Boulder four years ago from Lincoln, I moved quite a few favorite plants with me. One, was Sedum tatarinowii ‘Mongolian Stardust’, which I got from Harlan along with his story of how he found it. He said that when he went on a plant hunting trip to Mongolia, it was one of the plants he was looking for. He never found it. But when he got to the airport to leave, he noticed a seed on his shirt pocket. Harlan knows his seeds and he recognized it to be a sedum seed. He put it into an envelope and when he got home he planted it. Sure enough, it was the sedum he’d been searching for. Serendipity? You decide.
Harlan, I’ve got your sedum safely transplanted into a buffalo grass patch behind my house here in Boulder.
For further reading, I highly recommend this “Harlan Hamernik: Fighting Fires and Malaria” written by North Carolina nurseryman, Allen Bush, just two months ago. It portrays who Harlan was quite perfectly, even if he got the last sentence painfully wrong….. “These projects have been a lot of fun,” Harlan says. Does he ever run out of ideas? “Nope,” he responds. “There are so many things to learn in nature. Nothing stops.” Least of all Harlan Hamernik.
Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Gardens writes “Passing of a Friend”.
Here is the Omaha World-Herald’s article about his death: Blast kills noted horticulturist Harlan Hamernik, destroys his home