I never have much luck with annual sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), probably because a procrastinator such as myself never plants them early enough. Cool season annuals which don’t like hot weather, they theoretically should be sown here in early spring to bloom in early summer. The ones I tried to start this year still are anemic and flowerless in their container as of early August. I’m hoping that they last until cooler weather arrives, when they might begin to perk up.
The perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) apparently isn’t much bothered by sizzling temperatures, because a mass of it remains in bloom near the corner of our road. Years ago, the owner of that plot sold bulbs and perennials to local customers, so I suspect he was the one who originally sowed those plants. Unfortunately, the perennial lacks what many people love most about sweet peas—their fragrance.
The First Sweet Peas
I have a vague recollection that the heirloom ‘Cupani’ bloomed amiably enough for me one summer, but it reportedly tolerates heat better than most modern hybrids do. The first sweet pea whose name appeared in print in 1695, it eventually would be named for Francisco Cupani, the monk who oversaw Sicily’s botanical garden and was responsible for that mentioning. Although many wild lathyrus varieties grew around the world at the time, it can be argued that few were as striking and fragrant as that ruby and amethyst gem. The red and white ‘Painted Lady’ is considered the first official cultivar, appearing around 1731. Like 'Cupani,' it had only two flowers per stem.
Resizing the Plants and Blooms
Henry Eckford, once head gardener to the Earl of Radnor, would develop the larger sweet peas known as grandifloras, though he had moved on to working for a Dr. Sankey at the time. Eckford reportedly sprung the first of his 115 cultivars—‘Bronze Prince’—on the gardening world in 1882. One of his pink types, 'Prima Donna,' would prove important as well.
“Across the pond” in the U. S., a much more amateur gardener—a quarryman’s wife in New York—inadvertently succeeded in taming sprawling lathyrus foliage. She had been growing ‘Painted Lady’ on limestone ledges for years. To survive their shallow planting, those sweet peas eventually developed a more compact size and an inclination to all bloom at once. The D. M. Ferry Company would begin to market that variety as ‘Blanche Ferry’ in 1889.
Good Breeding and the Spencers
Meanwhile, back in England, another head gardener was quick to follow Eckford’s lead. Silas Cole, who worked for the Earl of Spencer, came up with the first wavy variety which was about one fourth larger than the grandifloras. He had bred it by crossing ‘Lovely’ and ‘Triumph’ and then pairing the resulting blooms with ‘Prima Donna.’
He eventually named his new cultivar ‘Countess Spencer’ after his employer’s wife. He actually had come close to losing the botanical Countess altogether, though, as he only was able to save 5 seeds from his first plant—and three of those were eaten by mice! The Spencer varieties would become highly popular, due, no doubt, to both their flirty flounces and aristocratic name.
Cut-flower grower W. J. Unwin produced his similarly larger and frillier sweet pea in a more easy-peasy manner. He simply found it growing among his ‘Prima Donna’ blooms and saved seeds, naming the sport ‘Gladys Unwin’ after his daughter. (Sports are botanical “accidents,” which generally occur due to genetic mutation.) Of course, he did have to continue growing the new cultivar for a while to ensure that it would retain its characteristics before he began selling its seeds.
In the years since, breeders have gone on to develop even sweeter peas, such as the ‘Blue Vein’ pictured in the banner. But I still like to think that such things evolve when all avid gardeners—from a quarryman’s wife to an Earl’s head horticulturarlist—keep a protective and discerning eye on their favorite plants.
Photos: The 'Blue Vein' and 'Painted Lady' photos are by AnniesAnnuals, the latifolius photo by Gabrielle, and the 'Cupani' photo by wakingdream, all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles..