How a horticulturist patented a unique climbing hydrangea
Dan Benarcik was handing out little cuttings of a fascinating variegated climbing hydrangea he introduced called ‘Firefly.’ It was at a convention of garden writers more than 15 years ago and looking down at the little plant wrapped in plastic that I became obsessed with the variety, falling in love with the stunning spring foliage of this shade-loving perennial vine.
Over the years Dan and I became friends, and whenever I see his plant, I think of him and feel a deep sense of pride when it’s on display. I guess it’s kind of like being a fan of a band and when they succeed, the fan feels so proud.
Last year while interviewing John Staudacher in his city lot garden located in Regent Square, I saw two beautiful ‘Firefly’ climbing hydrangeas clinging to his garage wall. I was overjoyed and began to explain to Staudacher the connection I had with the plant and told him what I knew about the pretty hydrangea.
Little did I know that the true tale of this amazing vine would be revealed a few months later, when I ran into Benarcik at the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Baltimore.
He sat down in a busy media room pledging to unravel the fascinating history of ‘Firefly.’
Nearly 30 years ago, he was a salesman for an East Coast plant wholesaler. While unloading a truck of thousands of straight species climbing hydrangeas, he recognized one that was unique. It was March, though, and the vines were dormant, just sticks with swelling buds.
“I noticed one that just looked a little different,” he says. “I simply kicked it aside.”
He purchased the plant with his employee discount and didn’t give it much thought.
“I bought it and took it home, and sure enough, two or three weeks later when the buds opened, there was a bright chartreuse marginal variegation on it,” Benarcik says. “It was different than any other one I’d ever seen.”
It’s a mystery as to how the plant came to be. Maybe it’s a sport, he thought.
For a few years, he grew the plant in his garden to assure it would reliably produce the bright green variegated leaves annually. When he moved from his home in Landenburg, Pa., near the Delaware border, he asked some friends if they could tend to the plant.
“They were delighted,” he says with his trademark grin. The plant would reside at Firefly Farm.
“I tied into the name of the farm,” he says of his plant, “but furthermore, the chartreuse variation was reminiscent of the glow of fireflies.”
Benarcik knew he needed to protect the plant and started the process of patenting the variety. With the help of family, he put together enough money to start laying the groundwork for the patent. As the plant was already named, his patent attorney warned him that much of the West Coast and many parts of the country didn’t have fireflies or the type that produced a yellow glow, Benarcik says.
He realized that he would have to be a one-man marketing guru to make the cultivar a success.
At about the same time, ‘Miranda’ was being released on the West Coast. It’s nearly identical to ‘Firefly,’ and Benarcik was introduced to a legal challenge. In the end, both varieties have made it into the garden market.
“It’s very likely ‘Miranda’ came from the same source, but it was never patented,” he says.
With his connections to commercial growers, he first sent ‘Firefly’ to be propagated for sale in the southeast of the country, but the plant didn’t like the heat. The vine was much more successful in the north when planted by Spring Meadow Nurseries, which still carries the plant.
“It’s distinctively different than a straight cultivar,” Benarcik says. “It is a long-term landscape vine, he says of climbing hydrangeas in general, “beautiful exfoliating bark, wonderful durable hardiness, disease resistance and this form, ‘Firefly’ has that beautiful chartreuse ring around it. In the springtime, it’s most vibrant. By the end of the season it reverts back to a green.” The foliage is covered in creamy white flowers in the summer.
‘Firefly’ is coveted by plant lovers, and even listed in Michael Dirr’s prestigious “Manual of Woody Plants,” but has never caught on in a big way with gardeners.
“It has never really exploded,” Benarcik says. “My hopes (and) expectations have changed over the years. It’s still fun and it’s still exciting to see it in the landscape, in gardens, in garden centers.”
Benarcik has spent a lifetime in the professional garden trade, and he’s currently a horticulturist at Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, a wonderful public garden in eastern Pennsylvania. Even though ‘Firefly’ didn’t make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, he’s thrilled to have introduced a special plant to the gardening world.
“If nothing else, I will go to my grave or my big compost pile at the end of my life knowing that I contributed something to this industry,” he says smiling. “It’s out there and I feel good about that.”