The Industry Remembers Harlan Hamernik
Horticulture professionals recall the passionate plantsman behind Bluebird Nursery and H.H. Wild Plums.
October 23, 2012
The plant world lost one of its most knowledgeable and passionate members on Oct. 18, 2012 with the death of Harlan Hamernik, founder of Bluebird Nursery in Clarkson, Neb.
Hamernik, 76, died following an explosion and fire at his home in Clarkson. The cause of the explosion is being in investigated, but authorities have ruled out foul play and believe it was accidental.
Hamernik’s Life And Legacy
Hamernik and his wife, Shirley, founded Bluebird Nursery in 1958. The nursery now has three locations in Clarkson, growing more than 2,000 varieties of perennials, herbs, grasses and wildflowers. The Hamerniks’ three sons, Tom, Chuck and Mike now run the nursery.
While Hamernik was considered one of the most knowledgeable plantsmen in the business, his passion to learn more never waned. He went on exploration trips to China, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, searching for new plants to bring back, introducing many of them to American gardeners through Bluebird Nursery. He was also a proponent of plants native to the U.S, and was always interested in learning more about their uses – both in the landscape and otherwise. In just one example, cited by fellow plantsman Allen Bush, Hamernik became interested in the antioxidant properties of Aronia melanocarpa, the native black chokecherry. He began growing them for the berries as sustainable row crops long before anyone else in the U.S.
Although he stepped away from running Bluebird Nursery in 2007, Hamernik was not retired. His interest in hardy trees and shrubs led him to open another business, H.H. Wild Plums. He grew native nut trees such as oak, hickory, hazelnut, butternut and wild berries such as persimmon and of course, the chokecherry.
The Industry Reacts
Hamernik’s contributions to the horticulture industry were many. Allan Armitage, professor emeritus of the University of Georgia, says, “As a young professor, many people told me about this man Harlan and how exceptional he and his nursery were. Then I met the man and realized that the word exceptional did not even begin to describe his abilities, his charisma and his work. He was one of the inspirational leaders of this industry, and he certainly inspired me. He will be missed.”
Terra Nova Nurseries’ President Dan Heims also remembers being inspired by the late plantsman saying,
“I once coined a word: Chlorophylluminati. It refers to the illuminated ones in horticulture. Harlan was one of this cabal. Humble as he was, he’d probably give me flack for making that statement, but he was a gem of the industry. I’d see him at the Perennial Plant Association events, always brimming with news of a new plant that he had brought back from one of his many jaunts in the wild. His demeanor was infectious. ‘Look at the size of the flower on this geranium!,’ he’d tout. Indeed it was the largest I had ever seen, and the buzz went through the group like hot gossip. He loved, his city, his state. He sought plants that were “Nebraska Hardy” and did a service to gardeners in all Northern climes who had little to choose from the offerings of the day. I know the Denver Botanic Garden had hundreds of Harlan’s treasures in its beds.
“I had a speaking gig in Nebraska, and made a point to visit Harlan. I was amazed to see that the catalog offerings were only a fraction of the vast collection of plants in his greenhouses. I was also impressed with the inventions that he pieced together to make the nursery work. He was not afraid to talk about the failures as well, a sign of a confident person. I loved swapping stories of our jaunts and poking through the collection of exotica. I always thought that his title, Mayor, was honorary, until we walked to his favorite café and sat at his table. It seemed like every soul in town knew and respected him. In my faith, we say that a person lives on in the acts of goodness he caused. For Harlan, this will be a long, long time. Rest in peace.”
Hamernik’s Awards And Recognitions
Despite his many travels to exotic locations, Hamernik loved his native state of Nebraska and was interested in its ecology and plants. He and his sons were long-time members of the Clarkson Volunteer Fire Department, and he served for a time as mayor and on the village board of directors.
Hamernik received numerous national awards, including: The Award of Merit from the Perennial Plant Association, Delegation to Tibet & R.O.C. Departments of Forestry, Fellow of International Plant Propagator's Society, Delegation to Inner Mongolia, guest of R.O.C., Honorary Missouri Master Gardener, Nebraska Small Business Person of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Honor Award from the National Soil & Water Conservation Society, University of Nebraska Horticulture Delegation to China, INLA Association Merit Award, Individual Partner Award from Plant Select and many more. In 2012, Hamernik received the Individual Partner Award from Plant Select and the John C. Fremont Pathfinder Award.
He has also received the Distinguished Nurseryman Award, Honorary Member Award and Outstanding NCN of the Year Award from the NNLA.
The list of horticultural organizations that benefitted from Hamernik’s time and expertise is long, and includes: BPI, Perennial Plant Association, American Nursery and Landscape Association, Western Nursery and Landscape Association, MNLA, INLA, South and North Dakota Association of Nurseryman, CNLA, Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District, Hardy Plant Society, American Penstemon Society, American Rock Garden Society, International Plant Propagator's Society, Wholesale Nursery Growers of America, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum Advisory Board and Nebraska Advisory Council for Nebraska.