Behind the Iron Curtain

Poland stirs my soul. The people are warm and loving. The food is superb, yet unpretentious (The mushroom porogies were unforgettable). It is a country of many contrasts. I am struck by the difference between the stark cement Soviet architecture of Warsaw and the old world beauty of Krakow. I feel the pride and triumph of Lech Walesa and the sorrow and cries of Auschwitz. But more than anything I feel Poland’s enduring love for freedom.

For decades, little was known about the nurseries of Eastern Europe and what plants they were cultivating there. There were rumours of Syringa (Lilac) breeding in the Soviet Union and of vast conifer collections in Czechoslovakia, but few if any Eastern plants defected and turned up in the West. With the fall of the Soviet Empire and the Iron Curtain the door was opened to discover what if anything might be found in Eastern Europe. From a cultural and climatic standpoint my greatest hopes were in Poland, East Germany, The Czech Republic and Hungary. Of these, Poland was the most interesting. Its people had a reputation for plants, gardening and hard work. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain Poland lead the East in the importation of nursery stock and cut flowers. Clearly the Polish people had an appreciation for plants. It was my hope that a nursery culture and perhaps even an underground nursery industry had survived the cold war.

Mateusz Milcznska was our key to Poland. A former intern at Spring Meadow, Mateusz volunteered to be our guide and translator while touring Poland. He spoke excellent English and he had the driving skills essential for navigating the narrow and hectic roads of Poland. Mateusz had arranged all of our appointments including of our most pleasant surprise, the nursery of Lucjan Kurowski. One look at Lucjan Kurowski’s nursery and you could tell he had a passion for plants.

Mr. Kurowski established his nursery in 1960. Initially it was started on a small acreage and his market was limited to his local area. Over the years the nursery prospered and had grown to its current size of 24 hectares, which includes 12 hectares of container plants and 4 hectares of in-ground plants. The fall Iron Curtain had a dramatic effect on his business and as a result Lucjan now exports to Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Lithuania, Belarus and Hungary.

We were surprised at the quality plants at Lucjan’s nursery and we were especially surprised by the mix of plants he was growing. All of the latest Western introductions were there. He had wasted little time in accumulating the best new plants from the West. We were also delighted to learn he had active breeding program and had even introduced five of his own selections.

The one plant that caught our eye was a narrow upright barberry with bright golden foliage called SunjoyTM Gold Pillar Barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’ ppaf). Adding to its appeal, hues of red and orange tinged the new growth. In essence it is a golden version of Helmond’s Pillar. With Mateusz translating, Lucjan explained that his selection was more than just beautiful; it was also extremely burn resistant - a bonus because most gold leaved variates burn in full sun. Lucjan showed us the proof; Sunjoy Gold Pillar was the only clean plant in a full sun test bed that included all the latest varieties.

While the discovery of Sunjoy Gold Pillar made our trip to Poland a success, importing it was whole new challenge. The problem is that some species of Berberis are host to a disease called Wheat Rust. While Sunjoy Gold Pillar and all other selections of Berberis thunbergii are resistant to wheat rust, Federal Law prohibits the importation of cultivars that are not listed as certified rust resistant. Obviously this plant was not on the list. The catch 22 was we had to import the plant in order to have it tested, but we could not import it because it had not been tested. With a bit of hard work and a lot of luck we were able to import the plant directly to the Federal Wheat Rust laboratory and after two years of testing and yet another two years to get the plant published on the Federal list, we are now able to offer this plant legally in the United States. While the entire process took over six years, it is exciting to see that our trip to the former Eastern Block was a success.

Getting a new plant can be a struggle, but it is nothing compared to the struggles Poland has endured to gain its Liberty. Still - I find satisfaction in both and I am not alone. According to Thomas Jefferson "The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave” and “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."