It was that article in the Los Angeles Times sometime in the ’90s, accompanied by a photo of Gary Hammer crouched in a crevice of rock with a waterfall flowing behind him. The article that christened him the Indiana Jones of plant explorers. I can’t find the photo, but I did find another article written by Susan Heeger in 1992. Maybe I imagined the photo? I visited Gary’s Montebello retail nursery mentioned in the article and brought home an Ecuadoran polygonum that ate my parkway and climbed up the jacaranda — on no supplemental irrigation. With climate change forcing record heat and prolonged drought, I appreciate more and more Gary’s scouring the world for beautiful plants tough enough for Southern California gardens.
Gary eventually moved to Mexico, and it was while awaiting a flight back to Mexico that he was struck by a car on an Arizona highway in 2011, when he was 57. And in the intervening years since then, I somehow assumed the nursery was closed. In April of 2020 I stumbled on the fact that what is now known as Worldwide Exotics is Gary’s old nursery Glendale Paradise Nursery. I immediately made the hour-long trip and met Gary’s friends and eventual business partners, Shelley and Ken Jennings. Shelley and Ken were Gary’s neighbors, working in aerospace and finance, respectively, when they jettisoned those careers and joined forces with Gary, who seemed to be having a lot more fun. Worldwide Exotics had been running for years five days a week, but the huge operation is slowing down, now open only on Saturdays from 10-4.
In this 2013 tribute to Gary in Pacific Horticulture, some of the plants attributed to him include Dymondia margaretae, Cotula lineariloba, and he is credited with introducing lomandra, westringia, phormium, juncus, among so many others to SoCal gardens. Shelley adds ledebouria to the list. And considering its ubiquity, it’s astonishing to be reminded that Gary introduced Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ here.
For a time capsule snapshot of those heady times, this excerpt from the article in Pacific Horticulture sums it up:
“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?…In Southern California, Gary Hammer created that fever almost single-handedly.”
I visited Worldwide Exotics maybe six months before this weekend, taking no photos, just wandering the grounds. I may have been projecting a misplaced tinge of tragedy onto the nursery, especially with loss the leitmotif of the pandemic, and I found the subject difficult to write about. But how could the nursery be written about without mentioning Gary? And this was someone I knew only from newspaper articles! Yet apart from Gary’s untimely death, it also fills me with emotion to be transported back to my younger gardening self, one of the devotees who chased down Gary’s plants in a time prepandemic that seemed filled with more physicality, more jitterbugging around, more adventures, more wonder — just more.
This trip last weekend I was determined to shake off that introspective mood, take some photos, and just enjoy this remarkable nursery, which Shelley and Ken work tirelessly to maintain. The weather was mild, having been in the 90sF just a few days before. Yet when the timed misters went off near the office, there was a shout of approval from customers as they swarmed to the hydrated air. The grounds get baking hot, especially on the open, unshaded succulent side.
Under the shade cloth you can find bromeliads, begonias, plectranthus, ferns, hardy orchid bletilla…