“The Sweet Pea has a keel that was meant to seek all shores; it has wings that were meant to fly across all continents; it has a standard which is friendly to all nations; and it has a fragrance like the universal gospel, yea, a sweet prophecy of welcome everywhere that has been abundantly fulfilled” – Rev. W. T. Hutchins, 1900
They were the floral sensation of the late Victorian era. Edwardians wouldn’t consider a bridal bouquet complete without them. Gardeners of the 1920’s turned to them to give gentle relief to the popular straight lines of the day. Gardeners east of the Rockies went mad for them in the 1930’s when box cars full of the seeds shipped from California.
The sweet pea has long been a charmer with its butterfly wing colors. The intense honey-orange or candy apple scent stops you in your tracks as it plants itself in your memory. A sweet pea has every intention of forever haunting you.
Many before you have fallen under their spell. While believed to have been cultivated since 1665, only six varieties existed in the mid-Victorian era. But both professional horticulturists and amateur enthusiasts found their passion in the sweet pea. By 1900 the number of varieties soared to 264.
Showing sweet pea blooms was competitive sport in England and no small affair. The Sweet Pea Bi-Centenary Celebration, staged at London’s Crystal Palace in 1900, was a remarkable event with the arrival of over 38,000 bunches of sweet peas. One of the competitive classes called for one hundred bunches, arranged “in the following ten shades of colour: Dark Blue, Sky Blue, Rich Purple, Blue and Purple Striped, Brilliant Scarlet, Carmine and White, Pink and Rose, Scarlet Striped, Primrose Yellow and White; set up tastefully with any appropriate light foliage, the bunches to be shown in vases.” A second class called for “Forty-eight bunches… in not less than 36 varieties and not more than 3 bunches of one variety.”
Both amateurs and professionals have attempted to do everything to this flower which can be done. They now thrive in a wider array of climates but they’ve also been dwarfed and made taller. Their blooms have been ruffled and striped and enlarged in size and number. Petals have been thickened and leaves lost or diminished.
Despite their continual adaptions, few flowers cry vintage with as much airy grace. Yet, unlike the expensive romance of vintage clothing, china or jewelry, sweet pea seeds are wildly affordable. In the home they’re said to improve well-being and to boost libido. It’s entirely possible to have a great love affair with them.
The only problem is there are now so many varieties from which to choose it’s easy to find yourself torn. The following are possibilities for new love.
Painted Lady was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Possessing fragrant pink and white flowers that are smaller and simpler in form than modern sweet peas, she’s more heat tolerant than other varieties.
Named after one of the great personalities of British gardening, Ellen Ann Willmott, the over a century old Miss Willmott features salmon petals. She’s an excellent choice for areas with short springs as the blooms continue even as temperatures rise.
Cupid, introduced in 1895 in California, caused great excitement as the first dwarf variety. Once a pink and white version was developed, Burpee paid $1500 for the entire stock of 1068 seeds. Now with colors varying from white to deep purple, Cupid is small and bushy. Trailing only modestly and well withstanding heat and drought, she’s perfection in a container.
America is unique with its ivory blossoms striped crimson-red. First offered in the U.S. in 1896, she’s extremely fragrant and stands four feet tall.
Lady Grisel Hamilton, first bred in 1895, possesses three to four hooded, lavender blooms per stem. A Grandiflora, she’s delicate looking and wildly fragrant.
Lord Nelson, dating back to 1907, is heavily scented with rich, navy blue blossoms.
I feel your passion rising for this Queen of Annuals, but I sense you’re wishing for a yellow sweet pea. Alas, that remains an elusive goal. Many have tried. Some have come close yet have had their hearts broken. Yellow variants possess no scent.
A sweet pea without scent? There’s no passion. No romance. One may as well grow ornamental cabbage.