All About Sweet PeasPrinter Friendly Version
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.
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.
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.
Growing Great Sweet Peas
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.
View all of Renee's Garden Sweet Peas
From Our Gardening Resources
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Sowing Seeds Directly into the Garden
Starting Early Indoors And Transplanting
Growing Sweet Peas in the Midwest
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Growing Fabulous Fragrant Sweet Peas
Growing Great Scented Sweet Peas II
How to Start and Grow Sweet Peas
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