A Delicious Mystery

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The Sweetest Story Ever

Sweet peas have been garden favorites for at least three centuries, yet to this day, nobody knows for sure where they originated. Though long thought to be native to the Mediterranean, provocative claims have been made for a Chinese, Maltese, Sri Lankan, or even South American origin. Western gardeners learned about sweet peas in the 1690s, when a Sicilian monastery gardener, Francisco Cupani, sent some to Caspar Commelin, a botanist in the Netherlands, and (it’s thought) to an English gardener, Roger Uvedale. Today, we can still grow Lathyrus odoratus Cupani’s Original, a powerfully scented bicolor sweet pea  with burgundy upper petals and vivid pink wings that cover bushy plants some 5-6 feet high.

By the mid 1700s, several color variations were being grown, notably Painted Lady, an intensely scented, delicately tinted bicolor with rosy upper petals and soft pink wings, also still in cultivation. By the mid- to late 1800s, several hundred sweet peas were being grown, and the hybridizing boom continued into the 1920s. Henry Eckford, a Scottish professional gardener, developed over 150 sweet pea cultivars, some of which are still commercially available, notably the large-flowered Grandiflora types. Showboat Spencer types, ruffled and frilly but scentless, were found by the Earl of Spencer’s head gardener at Althorp. The same parent plant (Eckford’s Prima Donna) produced very similar sports elsewhere around the same time, but the Spencers took over the market in the early 1900s.

American Sweet Peas

By that time, sweet peas were hugely popular with North Americans, both as garden plants and cut flowers. Indeed, California’s growers shipped trainloads of sweet peas all over the country. Henry Eckford worked closely with Luther Burbank and other American seedsmen and breeders, and Cupid, Burpee’s first dwarf sweet pea (still in cultivation) won an RHS award of merit in 1893. Soon, California’s rich growing fields and well trained workers (who could recognize and remove rogue plants) were supplying consistently true-to-name sweet pea seed to English seed companies.

Around this time, W Atlee Burpee, a Pennsylvania chicken farmer seeking inexpensive feed crops, realized that he could make more money selling seeds than raising poultry. He moved his seed business to California and the rest is horticultural history. (Today, Burpee Seed Company is part of Ball Flora Seed.) Sweet pea breeding continues, bringing greater disease resistance, longer bloom times, adaptability, and a wider range of colors to one of the world’s most beloved blossoms. At the same time, the oldest known forms are being preserved, so modern gardeners can enjoy both the best of the old and the new.

Perennial Peas

A different species, Lathyrus latifolius, produces an abundance of lovely, long blooming, but unscented blossoms in white, rose, lavender or pink. Unlike the early blooming sweet peas, this reliably perennial species flowers continuously from early summer into autumn and goes dormant over the winter. The best known are sold as Pearl Mixtures and Pearl solid shades.

Keeping Sweet Peas Super Fragrant

These days, many flowers don’t smell as strongly as they once did, especially when grown in urban areas. Research shows that polluted air can reduce plant fragrances significantly, making them less attractive to their natural pollinators. Ground-level ozone in particular biologically disrupts fragrance production and breaks down scent molecules quickly, so they don’t travel as far on the air. Researchers predict that this double whammy will continue to decrease pollination rates over time. A study published in September 2015 in the journal New Phytologist suggests that the increasing ground-level ozone pollution caused by climate change is the game changer.

According to the EPA, unlike natural environmental ozone, ground-level ozone results from the blending of VOCs (volatile organic compounds produced mainly by cars and trucks, power plants, and factories) and oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight. Both release of VOCs and ground-level ozone are increasing annually, and a 2014 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change estimates that ground-level ozone will reduce global food production by 15 percent by the year 2050 if current production rates are maintained.

Let’s All Help!

How can we help? We can support EPA efforts to reduce VOC production, and we can plant more gardens. Everything we do to nurture, support and protect bees and other pollinators will help, even in the smallest garden (or window box!). The easier it is for them to find food and shelter, the stronger and more resilient pollinator populations will be. We can also help by building our soil quality, adding humus in the form of mature, high quality compost and aged dairy manure to promote the development of natural sugars (brix). Not only do pollinator-reliant food crops with higher brix levels taste better, they also have higher quality pollen and nectar and even their fragrance essences are more abundant and of better quality.

Here’s more info about scent reduction and loss:





This entry was posted in Early Crops, Easy Care Perennials, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Nutrition, Pollinators and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Delicious Mystery

  1. Eben says:

    And of course, we mustn’t for get Gregor Mendel and his pioneering botany work with these lovely things!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Yup, though he was working with edible peas, smooth and wrinkled, yellow and green, etc. Pretty cool stuff!

  2. Polly Lyle says:

    Hi Ann,
    I believe it’s sweet peas that I’ve seen along the roadside, especially at corners, on Whidbey. Someone must have scattered seeds, probably Lathyrus latifolius. Is there hope for germination if the seeds are just thrown out there and watered in with spring rain? How can this be successful without much work? I’d love to see more roadside flowers.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Polly,

      What you are seeing may well be the non-native, non-fragrant sweetpea, Lathyrus latifolius, or the similar L. pratensis, which have naturalized throughout the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere). BUT it may also be one of several native beach peas, perhaps Lathyrus littoralis or l. japonicus, or possibly even the leafy peavine, L. polyphyllus, pretty common in Western Washington. Anyway, collecting seed and scattering it would probably work, or you could grow plants and transplant them in the fall, when the rains return. Good luck!

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