Once upon a time, there were sweet peas growing in the wild, probably in Sicily, (there is some debate about this), but certainly ‘Cupani’, which was named for a 17th Century Sicilian priest, Francesco Cupani, originated in Sicily. Small flowered, bi-coloured and short stemmed, but very scented.
This annual wild sweet pea made it to Britain, and quietly got on with throwing a few sports, including ‘Painted Lady’ (below), dating to the 1700s, which is still with us today.
Then, along came a chap called Henry Eckford, he started hybridising sweet peas, and in 1888 took it to a professional level, setting up a nursery at Wem in Shropshire. In the US, seed company Burpee represented Eckford sweet peas, as well as breeding their own cultivars.
Generally these old-fashioned grandiflora sweet peas are well-scented, but still with smaller flowers and shortish stems, which made them less suited to the florist’s show bench, but very popular in the garden, and as cut flowers for the home.
Eckford’s ‘Prima Donna’ was about to change the sweet pea.
The English Sweet Pea Society’s first show was in 1901. In 1904, Silas Cole, gardener to the Spencer family at Althorp House in Northamptonshire, launched ‘Countess Spencer’, a larger, frillier-flowered, longer stemmed sweet pea deriving from ‘Prima Donna’ crosses or a mutation. Unwins were hot on Coles’ heels with similar crosses/mutations.
What is often lost in the bigger, blowsier Spencer sweet peas, which many gardeners are more familiar with, is scent.
If you’d like to grow some of these historic sweet peas, a few of Eckford, and Burpee’s, sweet pea introductions, as you can see, are still available to us nearly 130 years later.
My favourite old grandiflora sweet pea last year was ‘Prima Donna’, very floriferous, and long-lasting in flower. It is scented, some sources suggest it isn’t.
I start my sweet peas off here in the UK in an unheated greenhouse in pots of peat-free compost in March. Others prefer sowing in the autumn, saying the plants grow more strongly. Some also pinch out the tops of seedlings to create more branching plants, I’m lazy. Plant out in April/May in well mulched/manured soil against some kind of support so they can climb. Keep moist and fed through the growing season, (they tend to sulk in hot dry weather). Dead-head regularly to stop seeds setting and they will continue to produce flowers.
If you would like to find out about many more Plants with a past see my talks page.
The sweet pea in the featured image at the top of the page is ‘High Scent’ a modern semi-grandiflora bred by Dr Keith Hammett. Reminiscent of the older cultivars, they are well-scented but with longer stems.