Sweet Peas

The development of the Old-fashioned (Grandiflora type)

In the beginning ……
The development of the sweet pea started very slowly at first Father Cupani spotted a plant of the wild Mediterranean sweet pea with larger flowers in 1699. By the mid 19th century one or two other colour forms had been selected. Notably ‘Painted Lady’ by 1724 and a white flowered form. of a similar date.

The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus first used the word “Lathyrus” meaning “very exciting” to describe a type of wild pea (Les Pois Senture Sauvage – wild sweet pea of the Mediterranean), with scented purple flowers, which still grows around the shores of the Mediterranean, especially in Malta and parts of Sardinia. This is the wild Sweet Pea, which may have been brought into cultivation by trhe Moors, in the gardens of Spain around 1450. Modern records began in 1695, when Fr. Cupani, a Franciscan monk, first noted the existence of the cultivated variety, (Cupani’s Original) which is approximately half the size again of the wild flower, growing in his monastery garden at Palermo in Sicily. Four years later he supplied seeds to Dr. Robert Uvedale, a teacher and collector of exotic plants, living at Enfield in Middlesex, and also Dr. Casper Commelijn, a botanist at the school of medicine in Amsterdam.

By 1724, an all white variety was listed in a catalogue published by Benjamin Townsend gardener to Lord Middleton, although unfortunately lost we can show a modern recreation (CCC) developed by Peter Grayson at Eden.

By 1724 Philip Miller, Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, was growing a pink and white flowered variety of scented pea – then known as Lathyrus zeylanicus. This was later known as Lathyrus oderatus ‘Painted Lady’ and has been best preserved by the Busby family in their garden at Bowral in NSW, ever since (as the Busby pea) they took it out to Australia in 1823 (it may be more authentic than the ‘Painted Lady’ that remained in Britain. The pink and white variety may have been introduced in Europe well before Fr. Cupani sent his seeds of the original purple variety in 1699. In 1737, Johannes Burmann, writing in Amsterdam, noted that “A highly scented pink and white flowered variety of pea had been taken (probably around 1620), by Hartog to Cornelius Voss, a nurseryman in Amsterdam, after the Dutch had taken over from the Portugese in 1609”.

Development of new hybrids from the mid 19th century
Breeding and introduction of new sweet peas really gained momentum in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and towards the end of the century in America. One of the most prolific breeders was Henry Eckford known as the ‘Father of the Sweet Peas’ who introduced 115 varieties between 1870 and 1900 and most of his work before Gregor Mendal’s work on genetic inheritence was rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century! Progress in developing new cultivars was rapid because genetic changes in sweet pea, like the pea are controlled by relatively few genes. Because of this desirable changes are can be rapidly observed and preserved by self-pollination and selection.

The next varieties to appear were a red, a black and a scarlet in 1793. These were listed, as well as the two former varieties, in a seed catalogue published by John Mason, of The Orange Trr (a publishing house) in Fleet Street, London. Later, an improved form of “Painted Lady” appeared, along with a Blue and a Violet, and in 1850, two new varieties, one with striped flowers and the other with large purple flowers, were known.

In 1865, a new Sweet Pea , “Scarlet Invincible” which was rather more carmine than scarlet, was raised by Mr Steven Brown of Sudbury. Seeds of this were taken and sold by James Carter, and it was the first Sweet Pea to ever win the Royal Horticultural Society’s First Class Certificate. “Scarlet Invincible” was followed by Haag and Schmidt’s beautiful pink variety “Crown Princess of Prussia”, in 1868, and a white slightly tinted with pink, with a shield shaped standard, “Fairy Queen” came from the same source, at Erfurt in Germany, in 1873. James Carter then added “Invincible Black” 1871, “Invincible Stripped” 1874 and “Violet Queen” 1877 to this seed list, and in 1878, Suttons of Reading, introduced a new variety called “Butterfly” – a white striped with blue

It was about this time when Thomas Laxton, perhaps more famous for his varieties of apple, began working on Sweet Peas in his garden at Bedford and Henry Eckford, a keen member of the Baptist Church, who was born in Mifdlothian in 1823. He first began his work on the Sweet Peas in 1870 in the garden of his employer Dr. Sankey at Sandywell, in Gloucestershire. Later, he set up his his own business on a 10 acre site on Soulton Road, at Wem, a small town in North Shropshire, after which he had many successes. The first was “Bronze Prince”, which was awarded the RHS’s First Class Certificate (FCC) in 1882, and in 1886, he introduced a variety with a hooded standard – which he named “Waverley” in honour of his nomeland. This was shortly followed, in 1891. by a variety with pale coloured flowers and a hooded standard, Eckford’s pale mauve “Countess of Radnor”, and a cupid (dwarf form) was announced by Henderson in America, in 1893.

Although 115 different new varieties, out of 284 shown at the Sweet Pea Bi-Centenary celebrated in London in 1900, had been introduced by Henry Eckford, his main stimulus was the great demand for his varieties in the United States of America.

After Henry died in 1905, his business was carried on by his son John Stainer Eckford who made further introductions until 1910, ending with “Vicomte de Janze”. At Eden we have grown the following cultivars Prima Donna 1896 (Pink, hooded standard), Black Knight 1898 (Maroon and Violet bicolour), Dorothy Eckford 1903 (white)

The first American introduction was “Blanche Ferry”, by D.M. Ferry & Co. of Detroit, in 1889. Breck followed with “Captain Sharkey” in 1891, the same year in which Henderson, of New York introduced “Alba Magnifica”. W Atlee Burpee & Co., of Philadelphia, started with “American Belle” in 1894, the same year in which James Vick’s sons introduced the first “double” in “Bride of Niagara” C.C. Morse & Co. of San Fransisco, also started their own breeding programme at this time of which we have America, 1896 (white striped red); Janet Scott; 1903 (delicate pink) and Flora Norton 1904 (clear blue) at Eden .

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Sweet Pea was that almost 300 new varieties had been produced before 1900. Henry Eckford had produced over 100 of these, and it is possible that although he knew the techniques of cross pollination, he only learned of the new discoveries in the science of genetics just before he died in 1905. All his work was a result of trial; and error

The advent of the Spencer hybrids – precursor to the modern sweet pea varieties – Even Sweet Peas have their ‘Prima Donna’s!
Eckford introduced a pink cultivar ‘Prima Donna’ in 1896 which would change the sweet pea cultivation. In the summer of 1901 this cultivar or its offspring produced waved edged standard petals in three locations. Mr. W.J. Unwin a Cambridge Grocer first noticed it when he took some friends out to see his sweet peas one evening after dinner and named the new selection after his eldest daughter. Mr. Viner in Somerset observing the same phenomenum named his selection after his wife. Although this discovery was probably instrumental in establishing Unwins as a seed firm, it is best known from its third location Althorp House, home of the Spencer family as the first Spencer hybrid. Since then ‘Spencer hybrids’ with their large wavy petaled flowers have been predominant, although some of them are not as fragrant as the old-fashioned types.

Within a month or two in 1900, Silas Cole, the gardener at Althrop Park, Northamptonshire, home of the Earl and Countess of Spencer, and Later Lady Diana Spencer), Mr. W.J. Unwin , a grocer of Histon, near Cambridge and Mr E. Viner of Frome, Somerset all noticed a new “waved edge” form of Sweet Pea growing in their gardens. The first one appeared in the rows of “Prima Donna” a delicate pink raised by Henry Eckford in 1896. Mr. Viner named his “Nelly Viner” after his wife and MR Unwin named his eldest daughter. He introduced this variety in 1904. However, Silas Cole first saw his variety, which had larger standards with beautifully frilled edges and four flowers on each stem, in a row of ‘Prima Donna”s descendants “Hon C R Spencer”. This being the reason why all the forms of the modern Sweet Pea are known as “The Spencer Type”.

Following the huge success of the Bi-Centenary Exhibition at The Crystal Palace in 1900, the year in which The National Sweet Pea Society was formed, over a thousand different varieties of Sweet Pea have been introduced.

In 1988 Peter Grayson set up his seed business specilizing in preserving and multiplying old varieties, following concern shared with other enthusiasts about the disappearance of old varieties. Out of the three hundred cultivars listed in 1911 Peter only initially found a few. By search in all corners of the world he has managed to find many more.

As well as being preserved by enthusiasts, there is a biological reason why so many old varieties have survived. Although annuals like pansies sweet peas are naturally inclined to self-pollinate themselves, they will also cross pollinate but levels are low, even so their flowers for seed production should be isolated from other sweet peas for seed production. Even when bees land on the flowers and depress the keel petals, the flower structure favours self-pollination.


About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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