Gary Hammer: A Tribute

Intrepid

By: Sharon Cohoon
Sharon Cohoon

Sharon Cohoon retired from Sunset Magazine in 2011 after being their primary Southern California garden writer for nearly seventeen years….

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Gary Hammer, courtesy of Sunset Magazine Photo: France Ruffenach

Remember the plant lust of the mid-1980s through mid-1990s? When you would drive hours out of your way to a plant sale in another county or an out-of-the-way nursery to find something you’d never grown before? And head back home with a smile on your face because your vehicle was crammed full of things your gardening cronies would never even have heard of and couldn’t help but envy? And wasn’t it glorious? 

Gary Hammer, plant hunter and propagator extraordinaire, had a huge influence on the Southern California horticultural scene before his untimely death in 2011 when he was accidentally struck and killed by a car in Tempe, Arizona. We miss him still. This is a tribute.

In Southern California, Gary Hammer created that fever almost single-handedly. The nurseryman prowled the globe—Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, and, especially, Mexico—looking for interesting landscaping additions suited to our semi-arid climate. Then he’d come home, propagate like a madman, and tote his discoveries to a half-dozen farmer’s markets, the Pasadena and Rose Bowl swap meets, all the major botanical garden shows, and the monthly meetings of the Southern California Horticultural Society.

Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ with steel blue agave. Photo: Debra Lee Baldwin

There his fans were waiting to swarm. “He’d drive up in his dirty, beat-up Dodge van and pull out the most amazing plants,” says grass guru John Greenlee. And if you saw something you liked, you knew from experience to snatch it there and then, says Joan Citron, author of Selected Plants for Southern California. “You might never see it again,” she says. “Gary was always rushing on to the next thing.” Best not dally either, says plant broker Matt-Dell Tufenkian (Dominus Plantarum). “Gary was so well-known half of his stuff would be pre-sold,” he says. “By noon, he’d be out of stock.”

Meanwhile, Hammer was also keeping two retail nurseries—Desert to Jungle in Montebello and Worldwide Exotics in Lake View Terrace—stocked exclusively with his plants, personally propagating most of it himself.

Ferocious energy kept it all churning. “Gary was the hardest-working person I ever met,” says Greenlee. “He was like a farmer on speed—up at dawn and going full tilt until dark,” says Tufenkian, who accompanied Hammer on a plant collecting trek to Mexico in the late ‘90s. “He was exhausting,” he says (and Matt was several decades younger), “but exciting.”

What were we buying from Gary during that heady period? Orchid collectors got into bidding wars over orchids; fern collectors bought more ferns; succulent lovers fell for his Mexican agaves—this was before agaves became landscapers’ darlings. And avid home gardeners? Well, this being the height of the perennial craze, that’s what we were scooping up by the trunkload.

Queen Emma’s Crinum (Crinum procerum var. splendens) Photo: Randy Baldwin

We tried the tropicals Hammer so loved: Heliconia, Jatropha, Alocasia, Plectranthus, Cestrum, Clerodendrum, Hedychium, Crinum, and especially Canna. Gary introduced many of the variegated-leafed varieties that now dominate the market, including, many believe, the one now patented as Tropicanna®.

Not everything Gary loved was thirsty. He had a huge selection of Mexican salvias and Ruellia and helped popularize my own favorite plant group, Euphorbia. ‘Sticks on Fire’, his name for a Euphorbia tirucalli variety brought back from a South African trip in the late ‘80s was Hammer’s most successful discovery. Everyone wanted it. “At one time we had something like 470 people on the list waiting for it at Hortus,” says Steve Gerischer (Larkspur Garden Design), who then worked at that much-beloved Pasadena nursery.

But not everything Gary propagated was new. He was also trying to make sure old garden classics didn’t disappear. Laguna Beach landscape architect Jana Ruzicka, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia shortly after the Communist invasion, remembers expecting to find a wealth of plants waiting for her in Southern California nurseries. “But all they were carrying then was silly stuff like lobelia and impatiens,” she says. Gary, she was relieved to find, grew her old European favorites such as Buddleia, Phlomis, Hypericum, Helleborus, Ligularia, and Iris. “He was a lifesaver.”

Meanwhile, wholesale growers were also tracking Gary’s finds. They prowled his nurseries and checked out his stands at botanical garden sales. And what they decided to buy, trial, and introduce into the trade will, long-term, be Gary’s most important legacy.

Take variegated Phormium, for instance, which is now such a common sight in Southern California gardens, it’s hard to remember that hybrid New Zealand flax weren’t always around. “The first hybrid I ever saw was `Maori Sunrise’,” says Randy Baldwin, general manager of San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara. “I bought it from Gary at an LA Arboretum sale.” San Marcos went on to become well-known for its full line of variegated flax.

Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem’ Photo: Randy Baldwin

Westringia, a gray-leafed Australian shrub that thrives in Southern California, is another plant Gary popularized. “Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem’ (still the most widely-grown variety) was his discovery, for sure,” says Baldwin. Lomandra, a grasslike Australian plant that is becoming more popular with landscapers every year for its bullet-proof nature as well as its pretty habit, is another Hammer first, he says. Baldwin has found shorter, more versatile varieties to propagate since, “But it was Gary who introduced me to the plant.”

Bronze Carex buchananii and Carex albula ‘Frosty Curls’, Anthony Garza garden. Photo: Saxon Holt

Speaking of ornamental grasses—well, in the early ‘80s, you really couldn’t. “Pampas, blue fescue, and turf,” says Greenlee, “that was it.” Once again, he says, Gary was well ahead of the curve, bringing in brown Australian carex, South American rushes (Juncus spp.), and muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia) from Mexico. “He got the ball rolling,” says Greenlee. “Grasses were probably never Gary’s main thing, but he had such a great eye; around him no plant was safe.”

Brass buttons (Cotula lineariloba Photo: Steve Brigham

“You don’t associate humble groundcovers with the man who got us all to try the ultra-glamorous Heliconia either,” says Steve Brigham, former owner of Buena Creek Nursery in north San Diego County. Yet he says it was Gary who introduced Dymondia margaretae, which went on to become the choice for planting between paving blocks and stepping stones in Southern California. Nearly ever-blooming brass buttons (Cotula lineariloba) was another Gary find, he says. Brigham propagated C. lineariloba at Buena Creek and is delighted it thrives just as well in his current Mendocino County location.

To our regret, Gary is no longer out there prowling the world for us, seeking the next great plant. But we may not have seen the last of his introductions. Shelly Jennings, once Gary’s next-door neighbor and employee, and now owner of Worldwide Exotics, inherited Gary’s stock. “We found so many new things on our last Australian collecting trip,” she says, “I still haven’t had a chance to propagate them all.”

Isn’t that a lovely thought?  And, on that optimistic note, I think I’ll close.