Their prettiness, perfume and abundant flowers have made sweet peas popular with gardeners and florists for a long time
You could, on first glance, be forgiven for mistaking its plump, spherical seeds for peppercorns, given the fact that they are of roughly the same size and colour. But the similarity ends there, because no peppercorn has ever grown into anything as delicately beautiful or as deliciously fragrant as a sweet pea plant in full bloom.
That winning combination of prettiness and perfume means that this remarkably floriferous annual – whose Latin name Lathyrus odoratus celebrates its intense scent – has long been a favourite of gardeners and florists.
Records of its cultivation can be traced as far back as the 17th century when a Sicilian monk by the name of Francisco Cupani gave a written description of a sweet pea with deeply perfumed, purple/maroon flowers.
Seed from Cupani’s plant soon winged its way from Sicily to England, where it quickly excited the interest of botanists, plant breeders and gardeners.
By the late Victorian era, the famous British sweet-pea hybridiser Henry Eckford had produced more than 100 varieties of the type that became known as the grandiflora sweet pea, all of which retained the intense scent of Cupani’s flower but produced larger flower spikes in a range of jewel colours.
A few years later, in 1901, came the frilly-petalled, bright-pink L. ‘Countess of Spencer’, the very first of the long-stemmed, very large-flowered Spencer sweet peas, so called because they were bred by Silas Pole, the head gardener of the Earl of Spencer at Althorp.
Today, as a result of the work of Eckford, Pole and many, many other plant breeders of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, such as Dr Keith Hammett, there are countless varieties of sweet pea in cultivation, including 60 that hold the Royal Horticultural Society’s much-coveted Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
A baffling range of new varieties continues to be introduced. Some including ‘More Scent’ are prized for the intensity of their perfume, others such as ‘Almost Black’ are grown for the intensity of their flower colour, while others including the multiflora ‘Mammoth’ series are grown for the number of flowers they produce per stem.
Varieties such as the ‘Winter Sunshine’ and ‘Solstice’ series have specifically been bred to flower very early when grown under glass, while the Cupid series are valued for their compact growth habit and suitability for container growing.
The result is an embarrassment of riches where it’s all too easy to spend long, enjoyable hours browsing the catalogues of specialist seed suppliers.
That said, there are some enduring favourites including the magenta-flowered, strongly scented L. ‘Gwendoline’ (AGM) and mauve-flowered L. ‘Sir Jimmy Shand’, both popular varieties with those Irish gardeners who skilfully grow cordon-trained sweet peas to competitive show-bench standards.