Sweet Pea

COMMON NAME:  sweet pea
GENUS:  Lathyrus
SPECIES:  L. odoratus {annual}
                 L. latifolius {perennial}
FAMILY:  Leguminosae
BLOOMS: early spring
TYPE: annual or perennial
DESCRIPTION: The pastel blossoms of sweet pea come in a lovely array of hues including nearly every color except yellow. Their growth habit varies from creeping to bushy, and their height varies accordingly from 1 to 5 feet. Dainty and fragrant, sweet peas are a welcome sight in spring.
CULTIVATION: Annual varieties of the sweet pea will bloom best if given well-drained soil rich in humus, full sun, and regular watering. Plant seeds in very early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, for spring blooms. For a climbing type, be sure to supply a trellis or other means of support. Perennial sweet peas are not nearly as exacting in their cultural needs and will survive quite well in average soils with moderate watering.

Plant hybridizers have worked virtual wonders on the original 6-foot-tall, weak-stemmed, small-flowered, but wonderfully fragrant sweet pea. Originally found in fields in Sicily, sweet peas adapted well to growing conditions in England, and by 1722 sweet peas were grown extensively there for their sweet fragrance. By the late 1800’s breeders had created many different varieties of sweet peas, adding beauty to the sweet scent. Their popularity as a garden plant increased dramatically. They were especially popular during the late nineteenth century, and some people consider sweet peas the floral emblem of Edwardian England. Sweet pea was used extensively as a cut flower and was an important part of flower arrangements at every dinner party and wedding. It was also used in corsages, nosegays, tussie-mussies, and boutonnieres. In the language of flowers, sweet pea meant departure or adieu. The dried petals were an important ingredient in potpourris. Sweet pea fever reached a peak in England with the Bi-Centennial Sweet Pea Exhibition in 1900, when more than 250 varieties of sweet pea were displayed at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Praise for these delicate, sweet-scented flowers could not be high enough during the bicentennial. The Reverand W.T. Hutchins was reported saying that the sweet pea has “a fragrance like the universal gospel, yea, a sweet prophecy of welcome everywhere that has been abundantly fulfilled.” In 1901 the English National Sweet Pea Society was formed. Superstition holds that if you sow seeds of sweet pea before sunrise on Saint Patrick’s Day {March 17}, you will have blossoms that are larger and more fragrant. Some folks say that sowing them anytime between the feasts of Saint David and Chad {occurring on March 1 and 2} and of Saint Benedict {March 21} will give the same results. The role of sweet pea in the study of heredity should not be overlooked, for it was on this plant that Father Gregor Mendel first performed his famous work on genetics. Sweet pea is often considered the flower for April. The genus name Lathyrus comes from the Greek word for pulse.

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