Nurseryman Gary Hammer will stop at nothing to find a new westringia or a white-flowered ice plant. In pursuit of specimens for Southland gardens, he has tramped through rain forests in New Zealand, climbed mountains in South Africa and faced down the rifles of Ecuadorean soldiers who mistook him for a spy. “There’s no one else who does what he does on the same scale,” says Lili Singer, editor of the Southern California Gardener and host of KCRW’s “The Garden Show.” “He’s given us an enormous number of plants we haven’t seen before.”

Over the last 14 years, Hammer, who owns the Desert to Jungle retail nursery in Montebello and the wholesale Glendale Paradise Nursery in Lake View Terrace, has been compared to the Santa Barbara growers of the late 1800s who brought us our beloved palms and eucalyptus. Last year, in acknowledgment of Hammer’s gifts--South African aloes, small Australian melaleucas and more--he was honored by the Southern California Horticultural Society. “He not only discovers the plants, he works tirelessly to get them to the public,” says Shirley Kerins, the society’s vice president and curator of the herb garden at Huntington Botanical Gardens.

Most of what Hammer collects is tailor-made for Southern California, from cacti and other desert plants to shade-loving subtropicals, plus flowering bulbs, grasses, bromeliads and herbaceous perennials. Especially popular are his drought-tolerant selections, including a bushy African sage and an aromatic Mexican stachys.


Little do customers know that Hammer might have scaled a cliff to find their plants--or, in the case of some Mexican orchids, that he fell out of a tree and broke his leg. But he is modest about his exploits: “I’ve just always liked the unusual--rare, variegated or compact varieties of more familiar plants.”