A renowned plantsman from the Prairie -- who once declared, “If they’ll grow in Nebraska, they will grow anywhere!” -- now turns his skills to horticultural cures.
I’ve driven with crazy drivers far too many times, mostly when I was too young to know the difference between fun and peril. Harlan Hamernik beats all. He’s a long way from being a foolhardy teenager (76 years old) but he drives Nebraska’s country roads like a man on an emergency mission.
His left hand locks hard at twelve o’clock on the steering wheel, his head cocks around, talking as I’m pinned in the back seat. Georg Uebelhart, my Jelitto Perennial Seeds colleague, is riding shotgun. Harlan barely looks at the road. The car, somehow, continues on a dead bead – straight ahead. Harlan is telling a story (he’s got lots of them). I have no idea what he’s saying. I can only think about careening into the ditch.
This was on my first trip to Nebraska in 1997. Uebelhart and I visited Bluebird Nursery, the renowned company Harlan founded with his wife Shirley in 1958. The wholesale nursery offers an astounding 1,600 varieties of perennials, ornamental grasses, herbs, groundcovers and vines.
I had first met Harlan at one of the first meetings of the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid-1980s. I was – at the time – a young, North Carolina nurseryman, keen to learn as much as I could. It was exciting to rub shoulders with a few big names of the gardening world.
There were dazzling figures at early PPA symposia: names like Bennerup, Bluemel, Jelitto, Bloom, McGourty, Harper, Oehme, Schultz , Still, Walters and von Stein Zeppelin. These gatherings felt like tent revivals. It was easy to catch the enthusiasm for gardening and perennials with nursery folks, gardeners, designers and representatives from the botanic world. Though he never sought the spotlight, the Nebraska nurseryman was a glittering star in my garden galaxy.
Harlan couldn’t help but stand out (his the name alone flashes like “Bono,” “Sting” or “Madonna”). Dressed in cowboy boots and a fine western shirt, Harlan came representing Bluebird Nursery. Later on, I ran into the native Nebraskan at annual meetings of the International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS), where he was always willing to answer any question (and I had lots of them). Harlan has that rare ability to make you think, when you are in his presence, that you are the only person who matters. More importantly, he lives the plant propagators’ motto: To Seek and to Share.
His accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. To a long list of local, regional and national awards, the most recent two were presented in Denver in early June at the Plant Select® annual meeting. The Organizational Partner Award was awarded to Bluebird Nursery and The Individual Partner Award recognized an “individual who has made a significant contribution to Plant Select® through their involvement, participation or actions.” The garden designer Lauren Springer Ogden told the Denver gathering, “Harlan has boundless curiosity and desire to learn and share.”Don’t ever imagine that the Great Plains is some endless boring stretch in America’s heartland. You can’t claim to be a plant lover or a world traveler until you’ve been to Harlan’s region of Nebraska.
Harlan and his wife Shirley began Bluebird Nursery here in 1958. The company’s philosophy is characteristically matter of fact: “If they’ll grow in Nebraska, they will grow anywhere!” Neither was trained as a horticulturist, Harlan admits. They began as hobbyists, producing vegetable starts. And it doesn’t surprise Harlan now that locally grown vegetables have made a comeback. Bluebird, with 60 employees today, is Clarkson’s largest employer, all in a region devoted to corn, cattle and hogs.
Clarkson is located three miles west of the junction of Nebraska Highway 15 and 91 in Colfax County. Roots run deep here in eastern Nebraska. Harlan and Shirley were both raised in the area. Harlan had three Czech grandparents and a German grandfather, a railroad man who got off in Clarkson and became the town baker. He realized Czech baking was good business, and Clarkson Bakery features Czech baking today. Toman City Market offers homemade sausages, bacon and wieners. And the Bohemian National Garden – well, much of the town – has been planted with ornamentals from Bluebird Nursery.
The family’s influence is inescapable. Harlan was Clarkson’s youngest mayor at age 27 and has served as a volunteer fireman for over 50 years. The current fire chief is his son, Tom; son Chuck is the mayor; and son Mike serves in the Air Force National Guard. Together, with Harlan, the three Hamernik sons have a combined 144 years on the fire department. A nephew and a son-in-law volunteer, too.
Tom, Chuck and Mike run Bluebird now, but life is not dull for Shirley Hamernik. For years she helped produce the catalog, manage the plant labels and talk handouts. And she handled the company’s human resources and served as a judge for All American Selections that helped choose North America’s best new flowers and vegetables. She modestly refers to herself as Bluebird’s “Senior Advisor.” Shirley speaks proudly of the, “capable hands, now in charge, for which I am grateful. I still help with seed procurement or other projects they ask my advice on.” But her sights are set on the future. In addition to her home-raised-bed vegetable garden, she says, “I’m concentrating on making good memories with the next generations.” Never a dull moment.
Plants have long been Harlan’s calling card. He enjoys growing them, of course, and he loves the adventure of finding them, too. Harlan has gone on plant exploration trips to China, Inner Mongolia and Tibet. The compact, ground-hugging Clematis integrifolia Mongolian Bells® originated from seeds collected in Inner Mongolia as he traveled with a forestry exchange group from Nebraska. It is hard to think of anyone who could represent Nebraska or, for that matter, the United States, as capably as Harlan Hamernik.
I’ve thought of Harlan every week this spring and summer while one of his prairie discoveries, one of many – the perennial sundrops, Caryophyllus serrulatus ‘Prairie Lode’ – has flowered non-stop in my own Kentucky garden since mid-May, even with record temperatures in excess of 100 F. There is no sign that it’s going to give-up until frost stops it cold.
Harlan retired from Bluebird in 2007, but slowing down was not part of the deal. He switched gears and started Wild Plums. The new nursery focuses on trees and shrubs that are hardy in the Great Plains. His list is loaded with oaks, hickories, hackberries and paw paws. But he has a special interest in “superberries” with nutraceutical value. These include cherries, serviceberries, currants, mountain ash and especially chokeberries.
Harlan told me a few years ago about his new interest in the native black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, whose dried fruit had been traditionally saved for winter nourishment by Native Americans.
He got wind that the aronia was rich in antioxidants (Harlan calls them “rust removers”). Polish, Czech and Russian growers had taken a cue from the Native Americans and began producing aronias in the 20th century. Hamernik heard about this and kick-started interest in this versatile, hardy North American shrub back home. He got way ahead of the curve, propagating them for wholesale production as sustainable row crops before anyone else in the U.S. had thought about it. Not only were the berries loaded with antioxidants, the dark skins are also used commercially to give white grape juice a darker color. The skins contain sorbitol, the active antioxidant.
Last fall, he told me about anti-malarial value from the foliage of Artemisia annua. I first pictured the Asian roadside weed with aromatic leaves that has naturalized in barnyards and abandoned fields throughout much of North America. Harlan is producing seeds that could save lives in Africa.
If it his car hadn’t been t-boned at an intersection, following a speaking engagement at the All-Iowa Horticultural Exposition in Ottumwa, Iowa, he might never have heard about the medicinal qualities of Artemisia annua. No one was hurt but the car was totaled. There were no car rentals, but someone mentioned that an Amtrak station was a few miles outside of town. Harlan dug into his pocket and pulled out a business card he’d been given earlier in the day. He called and offered to buy dinner if he could get a ride to the station.
Over dinner Harlan talked with the retired John Deere engineer who had told him about his missionary work in Nigeria. Harlan learned that the biggest problem there is malaria.
“What can you do? “ Harlan wondered.
“There is a plant out there but I can’t teach people how to grow it,” he was told; the Iowa engineer looked at Harlan with a look of” you – you’re from Nebraska, what would you know.”
“Try me!” Harlan countered. “Spell it out”
And so the Iowan did: “A-R-T-E-M-I-S-I-A…A-N-N-U-A.”
Harlan laughed and said the plant had naturalized in Nebraska and was used occasionally for ornamental swags, dried arrangements. “It’s ferny and nice looking,” Harlan explained, “and the foliage was scented and deodorized houses in Asia where it originated.”
The good news: the plant is not hard to grow. Indeed, it seems to grow all over Iowa and Nebraska. The trouble is its tiny seed is as small as dust. This was the reason why field production was difficult; when the seeds were sown, they were covered too deeply and never had a chance to germinate.
The Iowan drove to Clarkson a few days later. The missionaries didn’t know the green side-up, but Harlan did. He demonstrated how to fill a seed flat, then diluted the seeds with sugar and put them in a vibrator, made out of an electric hair clipper. Harlan sowed two flats and misted (watered in) the seeds but did not tamp down the soilless mix. He placed the flats in plastic bags and told the Iowan to put them under fluorescent lights and to bottom water – or allow the flats to stand in a larger pan to soak-up water.
Harlan, of course, had to try a few flats himself. He started thinking of other strategies for production. There were a couple of acres of decent land nearby that was weed ridden with morning glories and velvet weed. Not long afterwards he was in the Brass Rail and a neighbor said that someone’s daughter needed a project for a Girl Scout badge. “Damn right, I’ve got one!” Harlan said. Within a few years, he’d figured out the row production of the artemisia.
He’s still mulling over other possibilities for the temperate Asian species. The barnyard weed will grow in the tropics, too, and might be monocarpic (dying after it flowers and sets seed). This gets Harlan thinking it could be kept growing as a perennial if the flowers are constantly removed. Harlan thinks breeders could develop sustainable perennial strains.
Here’s Harlan’s recipe for artemisia tea for the treatment of malaria:
5 grams of dried leaves in hot water. Drink 2 or 3 times a day over a few days.
“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.
Allen Bush, director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds, has also been honored by the Perennial Plant Association with its Award of Merit. He lives in Louisville, KY.