Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Plea for Peas

I don't know how many other gardeners have tried the old-fashioned fragrant sweet peas in their gardens, but if you haven't, consider this a plea for trying these lost lovelies.  To experience the fragrance of one of the hundred-year-old varieties like 'Painted Lady', is to experience Shangri-La, Nirvana (not the band), Vahalla, Eden, and Heaven, all wrapped into one.

'Royal Family Crimson' Sweet Pea
This year I'm growing 'Royal Family Crimson', a lipstick-red variety with a bit less fragrance than some of the older types, but with more "wow" power in the garden.  I chose them from the Select Seeds website after reading that they were bred for heat-resistance and were perfect for cutting, so they seemed to be worth a shot in my hot Kansas garden.  Indeed, they are living up to that reputation because the picture at the right was taken this morning, after a number of days of plus-100 heat in the past two weeks.  My previously grown sweet peas would have given up on blooming and started drying on the vine by now.  I have grown a number of different varieties over the years, from the old-fashioned 'Cupani's Original' to pure white 'Royal Wedding', to pink and red-striped 'American Crimson'.  'Painted Lady' is one of the oldest cultivars, very fragrant, and is widely available and she is one of my favorites.

Mixed varieties of Sweet Peas.
For the uninitiated, fragrant sweet peas, or Lathyrus odoratus, are a different species than  perennial garden sweet peas (Lathyrus latifolius; similar in form but not fragrant), and are a different genus altogether then the sweet peas we grow to eat (Pisum sativum) .  In fact, Lathyrus odoratus are considered poisonous.  For that reason, even though I know intellectually that they won't cross-pollinate, I don't grow them near consumable sweet peas from which I save seed.  I simply don't want to chance finding out I'm wrong when Mrs. ProfessorRoush whips up a nice batch of creamed peas for me.

The ancestors to the modern fragrant sweet pea varieties arrived in England in 1699, sent with or sent by a Sicilian monk named Cupani.  Directed breeding started in the 1880's by a Scotsman named Eckford. They became very successful commercially, especially with the discovery of the large-flowered Spencer types, so named because they occurred as a natural mutation in the gardens of the Earl of Spencer. They were all the rage in the early 20th century when whole flower shows were commonly devoted exclusively to sweet peas, but in the past few decades the number of gardeners who grow them seems to have faded away.   As soon as I discovered them, however, they became one of Mrs. ProfessorRoush's favorite flowers (and mine as well).

Here in Kansas, sweet peas are simple to grow and are planted in the early spring, just a little earlier then eating peas are planted.  I'm told that gardeners in milder climates should plant them in October for spring bloom, but I can testify that the seed and seedlings won't survive a Kansas winter.  I've found that mine germinate better if they are soaked for a full day before planting.  They love a spot in the sun that drains well but is constantly moist, and appreciate a little compost and extra fertilizer.  Most varieties grow as vines about 6 feet tall (although dwarf bush types are available), and so they must be provided with a trellis or fence to climb.  Mine do well with a steel cattle panel placed next to the seed line as they emerge, and I grow them in the vegetable garden currently, although in times past I have planted them beneath the shrub roses and let them climb among the branches.  If you want to keep the fragrant flowers blooming longer, dead-heading has to be done as each bloom fades.  The heirloom varieties all come true to seed if planted separately, and I keep the best varieties from year to year whenever I remember to save the seed.

I'm fairly sensitive to the strong fragrances of some plants.  I don't like, for instance, to eat in a room with even a single cloying blossom of an Oriental Lily.  But fragrant sweet peas, just as strong but not as intrusive, slip slowly into your awareness like a warm wife coming to bed late on a cold winter night.  And they are every bit as enjoyable as the latter.  Well almost, anyway.  Try a few sweet peas, wherever you can obtain them, and I promise that your sweetie will make you grow them evermore.


  1. Thanks for the heads up on a heat resistant variety, Professor! I planted some sweet peas this spring that were just a Burpee seed mix from Walmart and they were beautiful...for about 20 minutes! Actually they lasted longer than that and I was pretty surprised at how well they did in the Texas heat but it would be great to try the ones you've shown. They so remind me of my grandmother's garden. Sincerely, Texas Anonymous

  2. I love sweet peas! Had some success growing them when I lived in Savannah, but no such luck here in central Florida. The colors are gorgeous!

  3. hummm, your post makes me remember i planted some sweat peas & haven't seen them yet...yours are gorgeous & i'll bet they smell so yummy! thanks for linking up to Cottage Flora Thursday's! xoxo, tracie

  4. The Crimson Sweet Pea is beautiful!


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