Poland’s Brother Stefan Franczak has created a new generation of outstanding hybrids
by MAURICE HORN
AS A NURSERYMAN, I am always looking for plants that offer outstanding performance in return for relatively basic care. When I note something unusual about a plant, such as an extraordinarily long bloom period, my curiosity is piqued and I begin to make careful observations. One group that has amply repaid that initial curiosity is a new wave of clematis hybrids that originated in Poland. A few have been available in the United States for years; others are only now reaching these shores. All of them have proven to be top-notch performers, offering not only vigor and extended bloom, but also a wide palette of enticing colors, from subtle to sumptuous.
A MEMORABLE ENCOUNTER
My journey of discovery began one morning in early December six years ago, when I came across the late flowers of a clematis in the nursery display garden. They were four inches across and a delicate shade of white tinted shell pink. It was unusual, to say the least, to find such exquisite flowers so late in the season. The label read ‘Matka Siedliska’. I remembered the plant as having huge, six- to seven-inch, pink-barred flowers that began opening in late April and continued off and on throughout the summer into the fall. If these were truly its late flowers, then this was the longest continuously blooming clematis at the nursery.
I had received ‘Matka Siedliska’ (named for Mother Siedliska, a famous 20th-century Polish mother superior) from Polish nurseryman Szczepan Marczynski, along with nine other Polish varieties that were new to me. All had been hybridized by a man named Stefan Franczak. I recalled that he was a Jesuit brother living in Warsaw, and that I had had success with several of his earlier hybrids—’General Sikorski’, ‘Niobe’, and ‘Polish Spirit’.
My encounter with ‘Matka Siedliska’ prompted me to take a second look at this trio of hybrids. As my observations confirmed, they were of comparable quality. ‘General Sikorski’ was one of Brother Stefan’s earliest hybrids to reach the United States. The midsize lavender-blue flowers have overlapping tepals; the center is a complementary combination of cream-colored filaments and yellow anthers. (Technically, what we call anthers in clematis are actually anther connectives at the tips of filaments.) Its vigor makes it a good candidate for training up trellises and midsize shrubs, especially conifers. The equally vigorous ‘Niobe’ has starry, red-black flowers that fade to an attractive wine red. It blooms all summer and into the fall, and richly deserves its best-seller status. ‘Polish Spirit’ is a beefy vine that sends up so many stems from its base that it makes a perfect cover for a fence or trellis. (Don’t plant it on a small shrub unless your intent is the shrub’s slow demise.) The gappy purple flowers bloom all summer to mid-autumn. Its beauty and exuberant habit make it the perfect beginner’s plant.
I began to keep careful records of the new Franczak hybrids in our stock field. For example, I noted how generously ‘Warszawska Nike’ (‘Warsaw Nike’) bloomed and then repeated, even if I didn’t cut back the spent flowers. The older red-purple tepals often persisted attractively underneath the velvety new blooms. It also increased well at the base, sending up new stems readily—an ideal plant for the busy modern gardener. ‘Matka Urszula Ledochowska’ (named for another Polish mother superior) has been a bit shy to display her lovely pure white flowers. Place this cultivar where strollers can look down into the up-facing blooms, perhaps rambling over a low hedge or fence.
With my appetite thus whetted, Szczepan Marczynski and I subsequently became acquainted through meetings of the International Clematis Society. He sensed my keen interest in Brother Stefan’s hybrids, and so our friendship grew over the next few years. Eventually, I hosted him during a visit to North America. When I finally had the opportunity to visit Eastern Europe, I took advantage of an invitation to stay at his nursery in Warsaw.
I wasn’t in the least prepared for the splendor of his gardens, where all the classic varieties of clematis vied for attention with many of Brother Stefan’s hybrids. The plants that stopped me dead in my tracks, however, were a trio of Brother Stefan’s red clematis—’Westerplatte’, ‘Monte Cassino’, and ‘Kardynal Wyszynski’. (Many of Brother Stefan’s plant names refer to characters and events in Polish history. ‘Westerplatte’, for example, is named for the site of a battle on a peninsula near Gdansk, and celebrates the spirit of Polish resistance against the Nazis. ‘Monte Cassino’ honors the Polish forces that fought in Italy in the famous battle of World War II, while ‘Kardynal Wyszynski’ is a tribute to a well-known cardinal.)
True reds are hard to find among large-flowered clematis—most are really red purple. That’s why I was so taken with these three, which came closer to true red than any others I had encountered. ‘Westerplatte’ is a velvety, dark red whose flowers are complemented by a central boss of red filaments with gold anthers, a subtly pleasing combination. It’s the shortest of the three (four to six feet), and thus suitable for a small space or container. The rounded red flowers of taller ‘Monte Cassino’ contrast strongly with their gold centers. The truest red of the three was ‘Kardynal Wyszynski’, which rose 10 feet up a trellis, and looked dazzling near the off-white walls of Szczepan’s house. My notes for that day contain numerous exclamation marks.
How to Prune Clematis
GROOMING VS. HARD PRUNING
Many clematis bloom on wood left on the plant from the previous year; this is referred to as old wood. In order to enjoy a crop of spring flowers, leave the old wood untouched until after flowering (in late May or early June in Oregon, where I garden). Then cut off the top third of the plant to promote new growth and later bloom. I refer to this practice as grooming.
Other clematis bloom on the new growth (“new wood”) sprouting from the base of the plant. These cultivars usually bloom in summer in our gardens. At the end of winter, cut the stems back to just above the lowest leaf nodes. I call this hard pruning. Some clematis bloom on both old and new wood and can be treated either way, according to your preference. Regardless of the plant’s habit of growth. I encourage hard pruning the first two years the plant is in the garden in order to promote the development of a strong root system.-M.H.
See the chart on page 53 to learn which Brother Stefan hybrids should be groomed and which hard pruned.
During my visit, I also had the opportunity to examine the flowers of two outstanding hybrids in the pale blue-to-violet range, ‘Emilia Plater’ (named for a Polish heroine) and ‘Blekitny Aniol’ (‘Blue Angel’). Both are vigorous vines and generous bloomers, with tepals puckered like seersucker and deeply grooved in the center. In Szczepan’s garden, ‘Emilia Plater’ smothered a low shrub so densely with its lavender-pink flowers that I couldn’t see the plant it concealed. (At my nursery, I tend to use it on a trellis or on larger shrubs.) ‘Blekitny Aniol’ was one of a quintet of blue clematis that filled a wall in the fenced backyard. Its soft blue flowers stood apart for their shape and texture, but also added depth to the mass of bloom.
A VISIT WITH BROTHER STEFAN
A few days later, I had the chance to meet Brother Stefan and see his garden. The glorious ‘Blekitny Aniol’ seemed to have waited for my visit to come into full flower. It covered an arching trellis, making a frame around the smiling Jesuit brother, now 85, who showed us around his garden. Behind him I could see the stray blooms of ‘Polish Spirit’ on a fence; ‘General Sikorski’ was luminous against the dark leaves of a rhododendron. There were also beds of the daylilies and Siberian irises he had hybridized.
The story of Brother Stefan’s garden reveals much about the last 50 years of Polish history. Originally, the Jesuit College of Warsaw, which held the land, had intended it for a church, but the Soviet authorities wouldn’t allow the construction of a religious building and even threatened to confiscate the property. The Jesuits compromised and turned the land into a public garden under the management of Brother Stefan. With the decline of Soviet power, the church was eventually built and the garden reduced to a small plot.
Today, even though the garden is past its prime, Brother Stefan continues to work with his beloved plants. With more than 40 clematis to his name, the 85-year-old brother is still testing new hybrids. Over the past 50 years, he has grown out more than 500 seedlings, evaluating them for hardiness, vigor, richness of color, quantity of bloom, and length of bloom period. He also looks for distinctive features such as the contrast between the filaments and anthers and the tepals. All these traits have given his hybrids their distinctive stamp.
Walking about his growing area and looking at his new seedlings, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt the urge to return home, to see how the newer Franczak hybrids I had planted in our gardens the previous year were performing. Among these potential jewels were ‘Baltyk’, a rich purple blue; ‘Kacper’, a plum color; ‘Sympatia’, a rosy lilac; ‘Jan Pawel II’, a white delicately marked with pink; and ‘Dominika’, a violet blue, washeddenim type. If past experience is any guide, several of these will find their way to U.S. nurseries over the next few years. How glad I am that ‘Matka Siedliska’ led me to this fine group of plants from a wise and careful hybridizer. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 79.