Though not as fragrant as the old-fashioned selection, the Spencer Cultivars come in a pastel rainbow of color and are perfect for cutting and arranging.
Although the sweet pea forms seed pods that look like edible peas (Pisum sativum), no part of this plant is edible..
Ahh, the lovely sweet pea, an old timey garden favorite! The sweet pea’s delightful fragrance and cheerful colors have graced cottage gardens for centuries but have inexplicably gone out of favor in recent years. It shouldn’t be!
Sweet pea has compound leaves bearing two leaflets and a central tendril with which it can climb to 6 ft (2 m) or more in height. The stems are winged. Bilaterally symmetrical, butterfly shaped flowers are 1-2 in (2.5-5 cm) across and carried in clusters of 2-4 atop long, stiff stems. Typical of the pea family, the flowers have a large upright petal called a standard, and two lower side petals called wings which are joined together to form a keel. The flowers of the many seed races (cultivars that come true from seed) come in a variety of bright and pastel shades including scarlet, blue, purple, lavender, rose, pink, salmon, and white. (Everything but yellow.) Some are bicolored; some have ruffled or frilly wings and standards.
British seed companies offer hundreds of sweet pea cultivars and seed races. Roger Parsons Sweet Pea Company in Chichester stocks 1200 varieties! The older cultivars (old fashioned types) were often selected for their fragrance, whereas the newer introductions (especially the Spencer types) are more about flower color and size. The oldies, ‘Old Spice Mix’ and ‘Painted Lady’ are very fragrant and bear 1” (2.5 cm) flowers. The former is more resistant to heat then most and comes in white, cream, pink, purple and scarlet. ‘Bijou Mixed’ and ‘Knee High Mix’ are bushy, dwarf varieties to 2 ft (60 cm) tall that can be used for bedding. ‘Explorer Mix’ plants are even smaller, to 14 in (35 cm), and lack tendrils. These and cultivars of the Snoopea Group can be grown as bushes or used as ground covers. ‘Royal Family’ is more heat tolerant than most and climbs to 6 ft (2 m) in height, sporting flowers in a variety of colors. Flowers of the various Spencer Cultivars, such as ‘Lady Fairbairn’, ‘Noel Sutton’, and ‘White Supreme’, are less fragrant but are larger and showier, and come in a wider variety of colors. New introductions, especially from England and New Zealand, come out every year.
The original wild Lathyrus odoratus hails from southern Italy, including the island of Sicily. It was a rather common wildflower, and not very special until specimens were sent to gardeners in England in 1699. Much of the initial breeding and selecting of sweet peas for cultivation was conducted in the second half of the 18th century by the Scottish horticulturalist, Henry Eckford. The cool, wet weather of the British Isles was just perfect for the sweet pea and Mr. Eckford created and introduced more than a hundred named cultivars. Today British gardeners love their sweet peas as the Americans do their petunias.
Culture Light: Sweet peas do best in full sun but will tolerate dappled shade. Moisture: Sweet peas thrive in cool, moist soil, as long as it isn’t water logged. Water regularly. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 10. The sweet pea, known as a cool weather annual, does best where the summers are not too hot. In the South, they can be grown in winter and early spring before they succumb to summer’s heat. Mulch around the base to keep the roots cool. Sweet peas can tolerate light frosts. Propagation: The seeds of sweet pea should be soaked in water for a day or two before planting. Alternatively, the hard seed coat can be nicked with a knife or file. Plant seeds a half inch (1-2 cm) deep in early spring, up to five weeks before the last expected frost. They can also be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. Germination can take 2-3 weeks. In Zones 8-10, plant seeds in fall for winter flowering.
This old-fashioned sweet pea selection has naturalized in this suburban yard, reseeding itself to return each year to cover the fence with fragrant flowers.
Spencer Cultivar sweet peas growing in containers on Jack's deck.
Sweet pea needs support to climb on such as a fence, trellis, pergola, arch or just some string. (Alternatively, sweet pea can be grown without support as a trailing ground cover.) A fence covered with flowering sweet peas makes a great background planting. Try growing sweet pea through a shrub. The sweet fragrance can grace a whole garden. When the plants are about a foot (30 cm) tall, pinch them back to encourage branching. Flowering lasts for several weeks in summer. Pinch off flowers as they fade (or cut them fresh for a bouquet), and more will follow. The sweet pea is highly regarded by florists as a cut flower. A hanging basket of sweet peas will delight for a whole summer.
Sweet pea exhibits and shows are popular in the U.K., where the flowers are judged on size, color, form of bloom, presentation, etc. Plants are grown under tightly controlled conditions to achieve the maximum beauty, fragrance and form. The National Sweet Pea Society in the U.K. and the National Sweet Pea Society of America are good sources for more information.
Although they look like garden peas (Pisum sativa), and are closely related, the seeds of sweet pea are not edible.