by MARTY ROSS portrait by MICHAEL HAYMAN
Bone-hardy plants are Harlan Hamernik’s passion, with good reason. Hamernik and his wife, Shirley, are the owners of Bluebird Nursery in Clarkson, Nebraska, located right on the wicked edge of USDA Zone 4, where the average annual minimum temperatures are between -20 and -30°F. “If a plant will grow in Nebraska, it will grow anywhere,” Hamernik says.
Hamernik started the nursery in the 1950s, turning a hobby into a business. At first he sold annual bedding plants, but, within a few years, he branched out to perennials, to keep himself and his staff busy year-round. The nursery has grown to 40 acres, includin 10 acres of greenhouses. Bluebird ships perennials, herbs, grasses, and wild-flowers to garden shops, botanic gardens, landscapers, and mailorder specialists year round (except during a few deep-freeze weeks in January). The company offers more than 2,000 different plants and sells them in every state except Hawaii.
“I get depressed when I think about people to whom a tree is a tree, a grass is a grass, and a rose is a rose,” Hamernik comments. “They ignore—almost defy—the amazing natural diversity of the plant world.” He frets about the potential for serious, widespread plant problems in a world uniformly landscaped with Pfitzer junipers, Leyland cypresses, and Bradford pears. Diversity in a garden or in a city’s tree plantings guards against devastating blights and diseases, but to enjoy a diverse landscape, you have to know a ginkgo from an elm and a Miscanthus from a Saccharum. “People can’t see the difference in these plants, and I worry about it,’ Hamernik says. “They know the scientific names of the prescriptions they’re taking, but they don’t know the Latin names of plants. I don’t know what the resistance is all about, but I’m working hard to help change people’s attitudes.”
Hamernik loves looking for plants, scanning the landscape for tough and beautiful specimens that just might make it in the garden trade. His pockets are always full of seeds. “There is nothing that doesn’t turn me on as far as plants go,” he says. “Food plants, medicinal plants, herbs, scented plants, trees, grasses, vines, the whole works.” In 50 years in the business, Hamernik has traveled around the world, but he is convinced that you don’t really have to go far from home to find great new plants. “They’re there,” he says. “You just have to keep your eyes open.”
At the moment, Hamernik is especially interested in unusual and underused trees and shrubs. He hopes to find a pin oak that doesn’t develop chlorosis in alkaline soil. He has a hunch that cranberries, which are abundant in Wisconsin, have the potential to become popular groundcover plants and that, if he just keeps looking, he’ll find one that will flourish in neutral soil.
“A species of plants is like the human species,” he says. “Everyone is different, each one is its own little entity.” He has a gardener’s enthusiasm combined with a mother’s patience. When he is developing new plants, he checks every plant in a flat, every bloom in the greenhouse, “because if I don’t, I might miss out on the prettiest seedling.”
So far, Hamernik’s hardy and colorful plant legacy at Bluebird includes more than 40 introductions, including Clematis rehderiana ‘Temple Bells’, Scabiosa superba ‘Mongolian Mist’, Oenothera macrocarpa ‘Comanche Campfire’, and Scutellaria resinosa ‘Smoky Hills’. Among his favorites are the variegated Heuchera ‘Snow Angel’ and a series of new x Pardacanda (crosses between Belamcanda and Pardanthopsis), including ‘Sangria’ and ‘Sunset Tones’. Their popularity can be measured in miles; they have “gone all around the world,” according to Hamernik.
“I am optimistic,” he says, now 69. “I still have half my life to go, no matter how old I get.” He and Shirley plan to cut back on their work as they turn the business over to their three sons, but they won’t leave Nebraska for a cozy cottage near a Florida beach. “I belong in cold country” he says. H