The Sweet Pea – A Little History and Some Growing Instructions
In 1696, a Franciscan monk, Father Cupani was wandering the hillsides of Sicily when he came upon a flower so vividly colored and so potently fragrant that he was captivated. He collected the plant and planted its seed in his monastery garden. The fragrance of this sweet pea was extraordinary like the perfume of honey, propolis and wax that comes from a newly opened beehive. The original plant had deep blue lower petals, known as standards, and purple upper petals, known as wings. Father Cupani sent the seed to a friend in Britain in 1699 and by 1724, the seed was commercially available as Cupani’s Original or Matucana.
In the early 19th century, the color range of cultivated sweet peas was expanded and bi-colors became available. In 1870, Henry Eckford created the Grandiflora class of sweet peas which had mush larger blossoms. These sweet peas were soon joined by the Unwins, a group of plants with wavy blossoms. In 1900, Silas Cole, the gardener at Althorp, the estate of Earl and Countess Spencer, discovered Lady Spencer, a florist worthy plant with huge wavy flowers, but without the magnificent scent. The Spencers revolutionized the sweet pea. By 1910, the sweet pea was the most popular annual flower in cultivation.
The older varieties nearly disappeared in the 80+ years after the development of the Spencer sweet peas, but in 1986 Peter Grayson managed to rescue Painted Lady. He collected this specimen from an Australian family who had kept it and over 50 varieties of heirloom sweet peas in cultivation for several generations.
Sweet peas are easy to grow. They prefer cool temperatures and will cease blooming in the hot summer months, but will resume bloom in the fall. They can be started indoors or sown as soon as the ground thaws in the spring. With shelter from the noonday sun their blooming period can be prolonged, and they require ample moisture. Their seed can be collected, but must be sown in the following year because it loses viability rapidly.