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Brother Stefan Franczak and his clematis

A Jesuit priest from Warsaw, Brother Stefan Franczak, though a world-renowned clematis breeder, is a man of great modesty and diligence. He first became interested in clematis growing back in the 60's.


Brother Stefan Franczak

Szczepan Marczyński

So far he has raised and named over 80 cultivars, over 60 of which have been officially registered.He has raised the biggest number of clematis cultivars of all living clematis breeders, though it is their quality and not their quantity that makes his achievement so remarkable. Many of his clematis are acknowledged to be some of the most valuable cultivars that have been selected during the last 20 years. They have been described in various articles appearing in the press in the USA, Canada, Switzerland or Great Britain, and you will not find a single book published after 1985, dedicated either to garden climbers or clematis, that would not mention at least one of his varieties.

In addition quite a few of them have received prestigious international awards, e.g. 'Błękitny Anioł', 'Polish Spirit' and 'Warszawska Nike' have been given the "Award of Garden Merit", the highest distinction awarded by the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) in Great Britain to the best garden plants. RHS is the most populous, and at the same time the most active garden society in the world, comprising several hundred thousand members.

Four of his clematishave won medals at the biggest European nursery exhibition - PLANTARIUM - in Holland. 'Kardynał Wyszyński', 'Błękitny Anioł' and 'Westerplatte' received gold medals, and 'Warszawska Nike' was given a silver one. In 2002, after 3 years of detailed observation 'Emilia Plater', was the only clematis cultivar awarded the "Certificate of Merit 2002" by British Clematis Society, the title given to plants in recognition of their exceptional healthiness, hardiness and garden appeal. Many other cultivars raised by Brother Stefan are distinguished not only for their striking beauty, profuse and long flowering period, but what is particularly important, for their cold-hardiness and resistance to diseases.

All these characteristics contribute to their ever-growing popularity: they are propagated on a large scale in clematisnurseries throughout the world, and most probably they already adorn tens of millions of gardens in various corners of the world.

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Brat Stefan Franczak by Clematis 'Solina' in front of the new church.

After many years of careful observation I rate the following cultivars raised by Brother Stefan among the most valuable:

  • 'Błękitny Anioł', pale blue flowers of fine silky textured tepals, wavy at the edges. Yellow-green stamens contrast nicely with the flower. Long and profusely flowering from June to mid-August.

  • 'Kardynał Wyszyński', bright scarlet flowers borne profusely form June to September.

  • 'Warszawska Nike' deep red-purple flowers with nicely contrasting yellow stamens. In full sun it will start to bloom in mid-May, while in a partially shaded position the flowers appear at the end of May. An Exceptionally long and profusely flowering, easy to propagate, general healthy and hardy plant. The display is truly unforgettable when it's growing against a fair background.

  • 'Polish Spirit', deep violet-blue, velvety flowers. Very free flowering over a long period of time, from June to the beginning to August, and again from September to early October. Handsome, small, deep green, healthy leaves adorn the plant till late autumn. The most popular of S. Franczak's cultivars.

  • 'Westerplatte', large flowers of fluorescent red, borne very freely from May to August.

  • 'Emilia Plater' from the Viticella Group. Pale blue flowers with wavy-edged tepals are borne from June to September. It reaches up to 3 m. An exceptionally healthy and undemanding plant that grows well in every position.

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Clematis 'Kacper'
  • 'Kacper', very large (25 cm in diameter) intense violet flowers. One of the most sought-after clematis. It has its blooming peak in June.

  • 'Jan Paweł II' alabaster white flowers with a light pink bar along the centre of the tepals that becomes darker more distinct in autumn bloom. Very vigorous and tall growing what makes it a good background plant (for planting behind a bush or a moderately growing vine). Very popular cultivar throughout the world.

  • 'Matka Urszula Ledóchowska' is one of the earliest to bloom. Pearly-white flowers with nicely contrasting deep red anthers are borne in great profusion from mid-May to early June.

  • 'Bałtyk' light blue-violet flowers. Early-blooming, like the previous cultivar.

  • 'Dorota' pale violet flowers with slightly wavy-edged tepals and violet stamens, borne rom June to August.

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Clematis 'Jan Paweł II'
  • 'Monte Cassino', deep wine-red flowers with slightly velvety, strikingly contrasting yellow stamens. Blooms in June-August.

  • 'Fryderyk Chopin' beautifully shaped, large blue flowers with wavy-edged tepals and beige stamens.

  • 'Matka Siedliska', on old wood flowers are semi-double and white, when they appear on new shoots they are single and white with a pink bar.

'Anna Karolina' with clear white flowers, vividly pink 'Danuta', pale blue 'Dominika', pink 'Sympatia' or crimson-brown 'Syrena' are also interesting-looking and noteworthy, whereas among the newest seedlings the violet 'Marcelina', the red 'Słowianka' and violet-lila 'Solina' look most promising.

The names of the majority of Brother Stefan's cultivars are related either to eminent figures of the Polish Church ('Jan Paweł II', 'Kardynał Wyszyński', 'Matka Urszula Ledóchowska', 'Matka Siedliska', etc.) or Polish history ('Warszawska Nike', 'Westerplatte', 'Monte Cassino', 'Emilia Plater', etc.). As a result millions of people around the world have a chance to find out, for instance, who Cardinal Wyszyński was, or what role the Polish Army played in the battle of Monte Cassino. For many it is the first contact with Poland and it often acts as an incentive to learn more about the Polish history and its problems. We can therefore say that Brother Stefan's clematis cultivars contribute greatly to promoting Poland and its achievements in the world. I believe that clematislovers might be interested in an outline of Brother Stefan's biography.

Stefan Franczak was born on August 3, 1917, in Jeziorna, Wieluński district, as a twelfth of the fourteen children in the family. His parents owned a farm of 17 hectares in area. In 1938 he graduated from the Agricultural School in Kępno. After receiving a degree in 1946 from The School of Animal Breeding in Lisków, near Kalisz, he worked for 2 years as a teacher in the Agricultural School in Jaranów, as well as teaching courses on "The Agricultural Training".

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Garden of the Jesuit College in 70's, Rakowiecka street, Warsaw.

As a result of the deep faith of his parents and their devotion to God Stefan Franczak found his priestly vocation as early as his childhood. In 1948 he joined the Society of Jesus, but he decided to serve the order as a simple brother, without taking holy orders. After two-year novitiate in Kalisz, he was transferred to the House of Writers, the Jesuit College in Warsaw, in Rakowiecka street, where he was put in charge of the monastery garden of a 1.5 hectares in area. The Jesuit priests and the congregation from the nearby street wanted to build a church within the garden grounds. The communist authorities, however, didn't want to let it happen, so in an attempt to end the discussion about the construction, they decided to deprive the order of all the grounds surrounding it.

As it was supposed to be done on the pretext of donating the ground for important social initiative (such as building a school, a kindergarten, a library or a house of culture), which was very common at the time, the Jesuits decided to turn their hitherto fruit and vegetable plot into a beautiful ornamental garden that would be open to public. This task was entrusted to Brother Stefan, which he fulfilled admirably, creating an impressive collection of over 900 ornamental plants, mainly Clematis, Iris and Hemerocalis. The garden quickly gained fame, first in Warsaw, and then in the whole Poland. When Karol Wojtyła was elected as the Pope John Paul II, and the communist power was gradually declining, undermined by the underground opposition activity, the authorities started giving permission for the building of churches. Jesuit priests in Rakowiecka street were also granted a permission and by the year 1996 a beautiful new church had been built on the garden premises, reducing its area to 0.5 hectare.

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Brother Stefan by one of his clematis cultivars.

When Brother Stefan started to reorganise the monastery garden at the beginning of the 50's it was full of fences and tree stumps, and so there arose the need for vines that would quickly clothe them and enliven the garden with their colourful flowers. Brother Stefan chose clematis recognizing it as the Queen of all vines. Owing to the international relations of Jesuit priests he brought in various cultivars from all over the world, propagated them, and used the money gained by selling them to build up his collection. His interest in breeding clematis awoke when he noticed some interesting self-sown seedlings in his garden. He collected seed, which he later sowed and carefully described the obtained seedlings. He paid particular attention to the colour, shape and form of the flowers, their profusion and the blooming period as well as general healthiness and frost-hardiness. When choosing plants for selection he valued the most the plants with large flowers of a bright colour (red, violet, etc.) with stiff tepals and contrasting stamens.

He was deliberate in choice - he would observe the plant for the period of over a dozen years before naming and submitting it for registration. At the time he worked in close cooperation with an English nursery run by Jim Fisk, which introduced his cultivars to the international market. He usually named his selected seedlings after distinguished people of the Polish Church and Poland, or the places of famous battles of the World War II. The first clematis cultivar, obtained after the years of careful observation, he named after the Pope John Paul II. It was exhibited during the Chelsea Flower Show in London in 1982 at the Jim Fisk's nursery stand, and afterwards presented on BBC television together with its breeder (who was invited to England for this occasion).

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Brother Stefan Franczak and Raymond Evison in the garden of the Jesuit College, 1984 r.

Since 1960 brother Stefan has also been breeding Hemerocallis
(so far he has registered about 100 varieties) and Iris (an American form). He is an actual member of British Clematis Society and American Hemerocallis Society, and in 2000 he was appointed honorary member of International Clematis Society, and. He has written a book on clematis, published in Poland in 1996, over 20 articles on Clematis and Hemerocallis for popular amateur garden magazines in Poland, as well as several articles for the bulletins of international societies he belongs to.

When in 2003 the news spread out that the rector of the Jesuit College was planning to move Brother Stefan to another place and turn the garden into a plane lawn park, it caused a great commotion in the clematis world. The rector of the College received over 60 letters from all over the world. The ones I had a chance to read praised the value of Brother Stefan's clematis and the great services that he had rendered for the selection of new cultivars.

The letters brought a partial effect. Brother Stefan has been allowed to stay in his current place and has a small part of the garden at his disposal for as long as his willingness and force will last. The rest of the garden is gradually but inexorably destroyed. The area occupied by his collection is slowly being taken over by grass. I perceive it as a great loss since brother Stefan's clematis are an outstanding achievement of a Pole and a Jesuit, and the knowledge about them should be spread out in the world, as means of promoting both Poland and the Society of Jesus. It would be good if the collection of all Brother Stefan's varieties found its permanent position in the garden in Rakowiecka street in Warsaw, where it has always belonged.