Focusing on seasonal flowers, Philippa Evans-Bevan this time writes sweet notes on the sweet pea
After Roses, the sweet pea is a flower of fragrant perfection in my eyes. They are one of the glories of the garden, relatively easy to grow and loved by everyone for their heady scent and delicate colouring. At this time of year, they are in full bloom and perfect for picking. Even a small vase full will fill a room with fragrance. The more you pick, the more sweet peas you will get.
Of course, what you won’t get is peas! The seeds of the sweet pea are in fact toxic and not at all edible. So, despite the name, the sweet pea isn’t a pea at all. The confusion comes from its Latin name, Lathyrus Odoratus, which means fragrant pulse.
Readers may have noticed that often my writing for RURAL Jersey magazine and RURAL POST bears a certain reverence and appreciation for all things Italian. In researching this piece, I was therefore happy (if a little surprised) to learn that the provenance of this special plant was in fact Sicilian. A charming floral addition to the many aesthetic pleasures in life brought to us from Italy.
The sweet pea was introduced to Britain by the Sicilian monk, Franciscus Cupani. He was writing a flora of Sicily as long ago as 1699 and sent seeds of Lathyrus Odoratus to various institutions and plant collectors, botanic friends and correspondents all over Europe.
Some came to Britain to Doctor Robert Uvedale, an Enfield schoolmaster who is responsible for introducing this garden favourite.
That original plant, now known as the Cupani was small. It had dark blue purple hooded flowers and an intense fragrance. Very little hybridization was done until the Shropshire gardener Henry Eckford cross-bred and developed the modern form of sweet pea and turned it from an insignificant sweetly scented flower into one of the floral sensations of the late 19th Century.
At the age of 65, Henry Eckford had set up his own nursery at Wem in Shropshire and dedicated the rest of his life to improving and expanding the range of sweet peas.
He achieved two fundamental things: A greatly increased flower size and an explosion of the sweet pea palette of colours. His work created the Grandiflora Group of sweet peas, which form almost 90 per cent of varieties.
There are too many to mention in this post, but the navy-coloured Lord Nelson and the dark crimson Winston Churchill are so beautiful and impressive, and just so happen to bear the names of two of my heroes.
Henry Eckford came to be regarded as the king and the father of the Sweet pea. The man who transformed it into a glorious annual now found in almost every British garden. In recognition of his achievements, he was awarded the RHS Victoria medal of honour just before he died in 1905.
Sweet pea mania continued unabated and in 1911 Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail, offered a prize of a £1000 – a huge sum – for the amateur gardener who grew the best bunch of sweet peas! No fewer than 38,000 bunches arrived at the exhibition in London at the Crystal Palace. Although there was only room for 2,500 to be displayed in the marquee. Methinks it must have been a heavenly scented tent.
No prizes, however, for guessing that in the language of flowers, the symbolic meaning of sweet peas is blissful pleasure, good wishes, friendship and kindness.