Polish protest and flower power

July 30, 2022 | Notable People


Many years ago in a small town in the south of England, I bought a ‘Polish Spirit’ clematis for my father-in-law. At the time I had no idea that this rich deep purple flower is one of over 80 types of clematis (powojnik) nurtured in the hardest of communism times as a peaceful voice of protest. 

“Growing a new variety of flower is a very difficult job, taking an average of eight years for gardeners. Crossing seeds and then selecting flowers can only be done by trial and error”

Dr. Szczepan Marczyński, Faculty of Horticulture at Warsaw University

Mystery Breeder

In a central Warsaw garden, for nearly 50 years you could find the humble figure of a Jesuit monk working quietly on breeding these flowers. Born into a deeply religious farming family in 1917 in south central Poland, Stefan Franczak was the 12th of 14 children. After training at local agricultural colleges he worked as a teacher of agriculture but not long after World War Two, he entered the Jesuit order.

Stefan Franczak in his garden/ Photo: Gość.pl Warszawski 2016

He was sent to Warsaw, where at Rakowiecka Street the Jesuits wanted to build a church but the communist authorities wanted to turn the whole area into a communist social centre. So the Jesuits decided to transform the 1.5 hectare fruit and vegetable garden into a beautiful ornamental garden open to the public.  Brother Stefan was entrusted with caring for the garden and between prayers or perhaps as part of his worship, he developed over 900 varieties of ornamental plants within it.

The Jesuit garden at ul. Rakowiecka in Warsaw – Gość.pl Warszawski 2016

“The fact that Brother Stefan managed to create so many such wonderful varieties, I cannot explain other than with the intervention of the Lord God himself”

Dr. Szczepan Marczyński

Working quietly in the gardens, brother Stefan painstakingly crossed seeds and then selected the right flowers, noting their colour, shape, health and flowering time. He loved vivid colours and time for him was of no essence. Yet the beginnings weren’t easy. The soil was a heavy clay but he dug deep trenches filling them with compost, good soil and peat. Years would go by before he named and registered the flowers. As he bided his time, behind his composed manner was a quiet defiance of communism which had overtaken his country as a satellite state of the USSR. 

Let the world know

The names he gave his flowers demonstrate this – ‘Clematis Kardynał (Cardinal) Wyszyński’ for example, was named after the Primate of Warsaw from 1948, imprisoned for three years by the communist government, while ‘Clematis Emilia Plater’ was a heroine of the Polish uprising against the Russians in 1830.

Emilia Plater clematis – has a Certificate of Merit 2002 / Photo by Snotra Viking/ CC by 2.0

By giving his flowers the names of religious and historical characters or of Polish battles, he must have hoped that people all over the world would seek out information about them and he could keep up the spirits of his compatriots living under oppression.

At the beginning of the 1980s he began working closely with Jim Fisk, who introduced his varieties to the international market. Brother Stefan named one of his first varieties of clematis after years of development ‘John Paul II’. It was presented in 1982 at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Clematis John Paul II/ Photo by Dale Calder/ CC by 2.0

Other well know types are ‘Monte Cassino’, ‘Warszawska Nike’, ‘Fryderyk Chopin’ and ‘Westerplatte’ named after the peninsula where soldiers bravely defied the Germans in 1939.  Despite being surrounded they held out as long as they could, preventing further attacks along the Polish coast. 

Clematis Westerplatte/ Photo by F. D. Richards / CC by 2.0

“Living in Japan, far from Poland, we know very little about it. I know only three famous Poles: Fryderyk Chopin, John Paul II and Brother Stefan Franczak.

(Hiroshi Takeuchi, President of the Japanese Clematis Society)

Stefan Franczak not only bred clematis, 68 of which are internationally registered, but he added 115 new types of daylilies (lilowce) to his achievements such as ‘Major Hubal’ named after the famous Polish partisan. Click here for an article about him. 

Daylily ‘Major Hubal’ photo by www.ogrodywodne.pl

Flowers for the world

Szczepan Marcynski of Warsaw University, has introduced many more of Brother Stefan’s clematis to the international scene and the garden in Warsaw is still open. In 1996 a church was finally built on the site and the garden reduced to less than half a hectare. Stefan Franczak moved to Gdynia in his last years and died in 2009 at the age of 92 having received the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta from the Polish President earlier that year.

There is now a Stefan Franczak clematis  developed by Dr Szczepan Marczyński.

And Polish Spirit? In 1984, Raymond Evison met Brother Stefan who gave him this plant to develop and six years later it was introduced to the UK. ‘Clematis Polish Spirit‘ was so named, with Brother Stefan’s agreement, because Evison had been so impressed by the spirit of the Polish people. With an RHS Award of Garden Merit it is one of the most popular of Stefan Franczak’s cultivars, flowering from June to the beginning to August, and again from September to early October. I think it was a good choice from a daughter-in-law even if I knew nothing at the time about its heritage!

For a full list of Brother Stefan’s clematis click here.

This article was written on the basis of several articles, in particular: www.clematis.com.pl, www.taylorsclematis.co.uk and www.warszawa.gosc.pl The featured photo is by Snotra Viking / CC by 2.0

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