New Plant Pioneers: Ten Globe-Trotting Adventurers Are Discovering Plants in the West and Abroad That You Can Grow

By Dunmire, John R.; Swezey, Lauren Bonar | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

New Plant Pioneers: Ten Globe-Trotting Adventurers Are Discovering Plants in the West and Abroad That You Can Grow


Dunmire, John R., Swezey, Lauren Bonar, Sunset


First came figs, olives, and oleanders. Padres brought these "exotics" west from Spain to plant in their missions. Then came cuttings of such garden treasures as Harison's yellow rose; pioneers brought them west in their wagons as reminders of homes left behind. And gradually, with each new settler, the Western plant palette began to expand beyond existing vegetation and crops grown by Native Americans. But deliberate plant pioneering - the systematic search of the world for unfamiliar plants to enhance our gardens - began in earnest in the 1850s.

To feed the West's growing nursery business, plant fanciers started traveling the globe in search of horticultural surprises. By 1860, William Walker of San Francisco was offering seeds of Australian plants. Acacias and eucalyptus soon became familiar sights in Western gardens.

Today the search continues. Devoted nurserymen, collectors from arboretums and botanic gardens, and amateurs with time and resources are venturing into wild places seeking new species, new flower colors.

Of the many plant pioneers traveling the globe, we introduce you to 10 who have helped expand the selection of garden plants in our nurseries.

GARY HAMMER DESERT TO JUNGLE NURSERY MONTEBELLO, CALIFORNIA

Gary Hammer grew up in Southern California surrounded by plant lovers. His grandfather and uncle owned nurseries, so it was only fitting that he would follow them into the profession. After graduating with a horticulture degree, he was temporarily sidetracked by a job installing commercial landscapes.

At the time, though, he was living on a property that was partially zoned for commercial trade, so he opened up a small retail business called Glendale Paradise Nursery. Here he sold unusual cactus, succulents, palms, and perennials. "I would scour nurseries for oddball plants," he says. "But I was never satisfied, because there weren't enough unusual plants out there."

That's when Hammer turned to plant collecting. In the mid-1970s he and his father searched in Baja California. "Baja is so well explored, we didn't bring anything new back," he admits. So he turned his attention to mainland Mexico, which has a wealth of undocumented plants. Since then, Hammer has traveled all over the world, including Australia, Belize, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Swaziland, and Thailand.

He opened Desert to Jungle Nursery in the mid-1980s, and World Wide Exotics (at another site) in 1991. "I had plenty of room to grow plants, so Desert to Jungle Nursery gave me the opportunity to expand my selection," says Hammer. And even more reason to go plant collecting. His two favorite countries - for the diversity of plant material they offer - remain South Africa and Mexico.

Often Hammer goes out into the wild to collect plants, but sometimes he finds them right in town. On a trip to Mexico in the late 1980s, he visited a small village outside San Cristobal in Chiapas. There he discovered a beautiful Chamaedorea palm, which he thought was just an attractive new variety of C. glaucifolia, growing in a yard. When he got home, he found it was a completely new species, C. plumosa.

Hammer finds plant exploring exciting, not only because of the plants he discovers, but also because of the interesting places he sees and people he meets. "I now have friends all over the world," says Hammer. "I can go anywhere and have a good time."

Hammer's favorite finds

Canna 'Durban' and 'Transvaal Beauty'. Multicolored foliage and flowers. All Sunset climate zones.

Westringia 'Wynyabbie Gem'. A rosemary look-alike with gray-green leaves and light purplish flowers much of the year. Zones 8-9, 12-24.

Desert to Jungle Nursery (3211 W. Beverly Blvd., Montebello, CA; 213/722-3976) is open 10-4 Wed-Sat. World Wide Exotics (11156 Orcas Ave., Lake View Terrace, CA; 818/890-1915) is open 10-4 Sat.

M. NEVIN SMITH SUNCREST NURSERIES WATSONVILLE, CALIFORNIA

M. …

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