History of Sweet Peas

By Jan Cashman • Posted on January, 28th 2015

Fragrant sweet pea flowers are native to Sicily and Southern Italy. A Sicilian monk name Cupani sent seed to Dr. Uvedale in Enfield, England, in the 17th Century. (The sweet pea flower named ‘Cupani’ is thought to be the most like the native.) In 1730, a sweet pea flower named ‘Painted Lady’ was developed. Eckford, from Scotland, worked on sweet pea breeding and developed the grandiflora types which have larger flowers and more color selection. Then, in Althorp, England, at the country seat of the Earl of Spencer (related to Lady Diana), crosses produced ‘Prima Donna’ and other outstanding sweet peas called ‘Spencers’.

The Royal series was developed by the Ferry-Morse Company in the U.S. Frank Cuthbertson, from the Ferry-Morse Co., crossed Spencer and an early flowering sweet pea to produce the ‘Cuthbertson’ type, which is supposed to tolerate hot weather better. Hammett, from New Zealand, developed the striped ‘Streamers’.

TYPES OF SWEET PEAS (Lathyrus odoratus) Sweet peas have a number of classifications. Here are a few of the more common. Others, not mentioned here, include ‘Early’ and ‘Cuthbertson’.

Antique (Grandiflora): Developed by Henry Eckford in Scotland in the late 19th Century. Flowers often appear hooded and are smaller with shorter stems. Very fragrant. Vines grow 5 to 7 feet.

Spencer: Large range of colors with long stems, and varying degrees of fragrance. Usually four blooms per stem and petals are often ruffled. Most highly prized by exhibitors. Vines grow 6 to 8 feet.

Royal: This series was developed by the Ferry-Morse Company. They come in about a dozen distinct colors. Vines grow 6 to 8 feet.

Streamer: Developed by a sweet pea breeder named Hammett in New Zealand, these large flowers have petals striped with white and another color which could be purple, orange, pink, red, or chocolate. 5-6 foot vines.

Dwarf and Semi-Dwarf: Can be grown without support. Some are suitable for pots and hanging baskets. One common variety is the Knee-Hi mix. Individual colors also available.

Perennial (Lathyrus latifolius): These have no fragrance and are found only in pinks and whites. They will naturalize and work well on a trellis or fence where you can just let them go.