For centuries, clergymen and members of monastic orders have worked with plants. The cycle of the seasons goes hand in hand with liturgical calendars and the slow and steady work of tending ornamental and edible crops aids contemplation.
All over the world individuals in religious vocations continue to breed new varieties and tend gardens, fields, and orchards. As the spring catalogs begin to roll in, home gardeners will be able to choose from an array of plants developed by men of the cloth, including daylilies bred by a Catholic brother from Illinois, clematis hybridized by a Polish Jesuit and lilac varieties developed by a Catholic priest from Ohio.
The Rev. John Fiala served as a parish priest and administrator and taught at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He had a passion for lilacs and flowering crab apple trees, which he bred for decades on his farm, Falconskeape, in Medina, Ohio.
In addition to developing many new lilac and crab apple varieties, he also wrote authoritative books about them. In 1974, he founded the International Lilac Society.
Illinois nurseryman Roy Klehm of Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, who knew Father Fiala, says that the priest had a special interest in developing lilacs tough enough to survive the upper Midwest’s harsh weather conditions.
Some of Fr. Fiala’s 85 lilac cultivars are still popular, including two double-flowered varieties: the white-flowered Fiala Remembrance and Atheline Wilbur, with pink blossoms.
Fiala’s Little Boy Blue, a dwarf lilac that grows three to five feet tall, is also a bestseller, says Mr. Klehm.
Fr. Fiala's 1988 book, “Lilacs: The Genus Syringa,” revised and updated by lilac expert Freek Vrugtman, was republished under the title “Lilacs: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia” in August 2008. (Fiala’s other major work, “Flowering Crabapples: The Genus Malus,” was published posthumously in 1995.)
Born in 1917, Stefan Franczak, a Polish Jesuit, began breeding clematis in the 1960s in the garden that he had created 10 years earlier at a Jesuit college in Warsaw. Brother Stefan looked for clematis “with large flowers of a bright color (red, violet, etc.) with stiff tepals and contrasting stamens,” says Polish nurseryman Dr. Szczepan Marczynski.
He often named his cultivars after notable Poles or events in Polish history. One example is Jan Pawell II, sometimes sold as John Paul II, a cream-flowered cultivar with pink stripes named for the late pope, who was Archbishop of Krakow before his elevation to the papacy.
Though hampered at times by both his own order and the Polish government, Brother Stefan worked with English nurseryman Jim Fisk, who introduced the Franczak clematis into commerce.
While the clematis have flourished in the international marketplace, the same cannot be said of Brother Stefan’s garden. Since 1996, authorities at the Jesuit college have reduced its size, first to accommodate the construction of a new church and then to increase the amount of lawn space.
Fortunately, his countrymen can now purchase his clematis from Polish nurseries.
Brother Charles Reckamp, also a Catholic monk, was a renowned daylily breeder. Raised on a Missouri farm, he decided as a young man to join a missionary order: the Society of the Divine Word, based in Techny, Ill.
The order maintained a retail nursery business to help fund its missionary activities, and, because he had farm experience, Brother Charles was drafted to help with this operation.
He learned how to hybridize irises and later, when his interest turned to daylilies, he mastered the art of producing desirable genetic mutations by treating the seeds with colchicine, a plant-derived chemical.
The treatment doubled the number of chromosomes for a particular plant, thereby allowing many more variations of flower form, color, growth habit, and hardiness.
Klehm, of Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, whose father and grandfather had known Brother Charles, has introduced and marketed his daylilies for more than 30 years.
“In his mind’s eye he could see ruffles,” says Klehm, referring to ruffled petal edges – a characteristic trait of Reckamp daylilies that Brother Charles is credited with introducing into the hybrid daylily world.
The Reckamp varieties are also noted for their complex, luminous, pastel colors and flat, round petals. The latter trait gives them a more open appearance, which Klehm likens to “smiling faces.”
One of Brother Charles’s favorite daylilies is characteristic of his hybrids: Golden peach in color with heavily ruffled petals, it was appropriately named Charlie’s Dream, and introduced in 1993.
The monk’s daylilies still sell well, and there is even a dedicated “underground” group of daylily fanciers who collect and cultivate all of them, says Klehm of Brother Charles’s daylilies. “They have the most inner beauty and the best garden value.”
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