All About Sweet Peas
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The graceful beauty of annual sweet peas with their ruffled blossoms, soft texture and glowing colors makes them one of the most irresistible flowers. Their scent is an exquisite perfume of orange blossoms and honey, surely one of the most seductive of all flower fragrances. Properly planted and tended, they are carefree and easy to grow – especially in mild climate zones. Because so many varieties have been developed, sweet peas come in a symphony of soft colors and bi-colors. A generous handful of their long-stemmed winged blossoms makes a beautiful bouquet that will truly scent an entire room.
These flowers have a fascinating history. It is generally believed that the first sweet pea seeds were harvested from the wild by a monk living on the island of Sicily and sent to an English schoolmaster in 1699. These simple small maroon and purple bicolored blossoms had captivating fragrance, and sweet peas enjoyed some small popularity, but only five other colored selections were available at the beginning of the 19th century. In the mid-1880s, a Scotsman named Henry Eckford began hybridizing and selecting sweet peas, introducing much larger, more beautifully formed varieties with a wider range of colors. These "grandifloras" became very successful commercially as cut flowers and were widely grown by horticulturists for exhibition.
At the turn of the 20th century (in 1901) the most celebrated new form of sweet peas was discovered as a natural mutation in the gardens of the Earl of Spencer. This Spencer type, as they came to be known, had much larger, wonderfully ruffled upper or " standard" petals, longer lower "wing" petals and much showier blossoms overall.
Lovely Spencer sweet peas represented a major improvement in form and substance and the gardening public were greatly enamored by them to the point of obsession. They became unbelievably popular throughout the first part of the 20th century and new varieties were introduced with many varied colors and color combinations. Flower shows devoted exclusively to sweet peas were commonplace, as were huge and highly competitive sweet pea societies who put on elaborate sweet pea expositions. Major newspapers sponsored large cash prizes for the finest exhibition winners. Spencer-type sweet peas still have the widest range of colors because the intense fascination they hold for British horticulturists has resulted in so many varieties being bred. However, late blooming Spencers are not the best choice to grow in areas where summer heat comes on early because sweet peas prefer cooler weather for longest and best blooms, and Spencers will not make a good showing in early summer heat.
In the USA, growers who at first began growing seeds for export to this huge English market began to develop new sweet pea cultivars better suited to American conditions. American seed companies soon discovered that the cool, mild coastal area near Lompoc, California was ideally suited for sweet pea seed production and most of our American sweet pea seeds are still produced in that area today. Because this location is so windy, the bees that ordinarily visit sweet peas are inactive, so the flowers don't get cross pollinated and seed can be kept very pure.
American seed companies developed sweet pea breeding with many new introductions for the American market. Cuthbertsons are more early flowering and not quite as ruffled as the Spencers. The Royal series, still widely available today, are a little later to bloom but have a strong vigorous growth habit and long stems. Royals are still the most commonly grown sweet pea for the cut flower market. The earliest sweet peas developed in the first part of the 20th century were the Early Multiflora Giganteas. These blooms are large, with excellent form and strong stems. The Mammoth series, selected from them, possesses longer stems and larger blossoms and is still offered through many seed catalogues today. Dwarf and non-climbing sweet pea cultivars were also developed in the last 50 years.
In modern Japan, single stems of remarkable cut flowers can command enormous prices, so in the last decade American breeders took advantage of this made-to-order market for sweet peas by developing Early Winter Blooming sweet peas. These flowers do not need constantly lengthening days to initiate bloom like other varieties and have been successfully grown in green houses to produce cut flowers out of season for the Japanese market. Renee's Garden carries the Early Winter Blooming sweet peas varieties Velvet Elegance
and Chiffon Elegance
. In the very mild climate of Southern California, gardeners can plant them in the beginning of August for blooms in time for the Christmas holidays! In other climate zones, these varieties will bloom 10 days to several weeks earlier than other sweet peas to start the season.
Modern sweet pea varieties, including the Spencer types, are only moderately scented. For intense full-bodied perfume, seed companies have gone back to the pre-Spencer types. Renee's Garden Perfume Delight
, Jewels of Albion, Queen of Hearts
, and Queen of the Night
are all selected, themed color blends of older, named grandiflora sweet pea varieties. Painted Lady
and Original Cupani
are examples of the oldest, pre 19th century forms. Their richly colored flowers are smaller and simpler in form, but very fragrant, early blooming and more heat tolerant than most modern varieties.
In New Zealand, eminent flower breeder Dr. Keith Hammett has developed wonderful cultivars that combine the weather tolerance and haunting perfume of old- fashioned types with modern size and beautiful ruffled form in many beautiful rich colors, bi-colors, and unusual color patterns. These extraordinary varieties of Hammett sweet peas are offered exclusively through Renee's Garden: look for North Shore
, Blue Celeste,
highly perfumed April in Paris,
and the swirled novelty Saltwater Taffy Swirls
For those who would like to grow non-climbing sweet peas, the varieties Explorer
, is just 2 1/2 feet tall and makes fine, free-blooming spring border flowers. If you have just a small patio space and like to grow flowers in containers, old-fashioned Cupid
is a lovely pink bicolor with sweet fragrance that drapes gracefully from pots or windowboxes.
Growing Great Sweet Peas
Growing sweet peas is really quite easy and rewarding if you follow the basics. In mild winter climates
, where the ground does not freeze, sweet peas should be fall-sown in October or November for spring bloom. But if you don't get your sweet peas planted in fall, you can still get a nice crop, although a little later to bloom, if planted in late January or February. In cold winter areas
, plant in early spring as soon as soil can be worked; sweet peas can handle light frosts.
Plant your sweet peas in full sun in a garden spot with well-drained soil. If summer weather is hot very early in the season where you live, sweet peas can thrive in a spot with morning sun and bright afternoon shade. Dig deeply to loosen the soil and enrich it with aged manure or compost before planting seeds. Don't forget to set up a well-anchored trellis, fence or vertical support for climbing varieties before planting seeds. If all your seeds don't germinate in 10 days to two weeks, don't hesitate to plant more as they will catch up quickly. Some gardeners like to soak sweet peas overnight before planting them; others never do it and still have good results. If you do soak seeds, be sure you leave them in water no longer than eight hours before planting immediately.
Sweet Pea seedlings are very attractive to birds, slugs and snails, especially if fall planted, so to have a wonderful flower display in spring and early summer, be sure to remember to be vigilant about protecting your seedlings throughout the winter from these predators. Keep your sweet pea vines mulched and well-watered for better flower production. Once they do start to produce, be sure to pick stems of blossoms every other day to keep seed pods from maturing, because the more you pick, the more new flowers the plants will develop.