If asked on BBC’s Pointless programme to name a pretty and perfumed flower the sweet pea would be a high scorer and therefore an answer to be avoided. Well known and widely grown the sweet pea seems to have always been in fashion and is certainly not to be avoided in the garden.
A member of the Leguminosae family the sweet pea is indeed a pea. The Greek name is Lathyrus odoratus meaning literally fragrant pea. Yet whereas peas are of course edible the sweet pea is poisonous and can cause convulsions, paralysis of the legs and unconsciousness.
Discovered in Sicily in the 1690s by Franciscan monk Brother Franciscus Cupani, the original sweet pea was a small fairly insignificant flower but with a beautiful strong perfume.
Keen to share his find Brother Cupani sent seeds to various breeders across the world with some reaching Dr Robert Uvedale in the UK who went on to develop several different forms including the well-known Cupani Sweet Pea and Painted Lady.
Over the years the number of species increased with perhaps one of the most famous being the Spencer type which was a mutation discovered naturally growing in the gardens of the Earl of Spencer. The Spencer type was larger with ruffled flowers and a more showy appearance.
The popularity of sweet peas continued to grow and by the early 20th century reached almost fever pitch with shows being dedicated to this single cultivar and large sums of money being won as prizes.
Today there are about 150 species of sweet pea in a wide spectrum of colour, some with amazing perfume, some with large flowers, and some with long straight stems designed specifically for cutting.
The High Scent sweet pea pictured here is probably the sweet pea with the best quality perfume and delicate blush pink blooms with darker tips.
There even exist a few dwarf sweet peas such as Sweetie Mix which is perfect for trailing from hanging baskets or for providing ground cover.
If growing for the village show or other exhibition then Winston Churchill is a great variety with rich crimson blooms on long, straight stems.
Most gardeners find space somewhere for this classic cottage garden favourite, either at the back of the flower border, in a large container on the patio, in a hanging basket by the front door or even growing in a row on the allotment. Summer just wouldn’t seem right without sweet peas growing somewhere on the patch.
Make sure you read our Scented Sweet Pea Seed Varieties post which contains a detailed collection of all sweet pea varieties, beautiful photography galleries, full information on strength of scent and of course direct links to the Suttons Seeds website where you can buy all of these varieties of sweet pea.
Growing from Seed
Sweet peas can be sown in autumn or spring.
Autumn sown – keep in a cold frame or cool greenhouse and plant out in mid spring. Pinch out the growing tips when the plants reach about 10cm as this will make the plants bushier and stronger.
Spring sown – can be sown indoors during early spring and then hardened off or can be sown direct in late spring. When sowing direct there is a risk of slugs and snails munching on the emerging seedlings.
When sowing sweet peas rootrainers are ideal as are the inner cardboard tubes from toilet rolls. Use a standard seed compost and sow 2 or 3 seeds together. Do not thin these out but plant them, when the time is right, as a small clump.
Some people like to soak or chit their sweet pea seed prior to sowing to aid germination but others feel that this can cause the seed to rot and isn’t necessary. As always with seed, it’s best to follow the instructions on the individual seed packet.
Mice seem to be particularly keen on sweet pea seed so take precautions.
Choose an open sunny spot with well-drained rich soil. It’s best to put your support in place prior to planting and here you have a wide choice from wigwams to arches and canes or maybe to train up and through a small tree. If growing for the show bench then grow your sweet peas in a row as cordons.
Set your plants, or seeds if sowing direct, just behind or to one side of each support.
Sweet peas are really easy to grow and providing the soil is rich will need little maintenance. During dry spells water regularly and feed fortnightly from mid-summer onwards as this will help them to flower for longer.
The key thing with sweet peas is to stop them from forming seed pods and the best way to do this is to keep picking the blooms! Remove any seed pods that you miss and pick the blooms every other day. This way your plants will just keep on flowering and your house will smell absolutely gorgeous!