“If the rose is queen of summer flowers, then surely the Sweet Pea is a high princess.”
– Harry Higgott Thomas
A most beautiful hardy annual flower, sweet peas have been growing in gardens around the world for hundreds of years. Sweet peas are not the same as their edible cousins.
The confusion comes when the word “sweet” is used to describe the green peas we eat.
Unlike the edible garden pea, sweet peas are grown for their beautiful flowers and intoxicating fragrance.
Difference between Sweet Peas and Garden Peas
The sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is a hardy annual flower in the legume family, Fabaceae.
Although related to the green pea (Pisum sativum), they are not the same. The sweet pea is a climbing plant, which produces sturdy flower-filled stems along the vine, making them an excellent cut flower. No parts of the sweet pea are edible.
In comparison, all parts of the green pea plant are edible, from the seeds, to the shoots, to their seed-filled pods. Although they develop flowers, these flowers are typically not showy (although there are some pretty light pink and purple flowering green pea varieties) and have a short lifespan before they develop into an edible pod.
History of the Sweet Pea
The first sweet pea was discovered by Father Francis Cupani, a Sicilian monk and botanist.
In the early 1690’s, Cupani discovered the wild sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, and began sending specimens to his friends in Holland and England. Several colour variations were introduced during the 1700’s and ‘Painted Lady’, a variety still available today, was first introduced in 1817 in a seed catalogue and described as “a scarlet standard with white wings and keel.” More varieties and colour variations continued to be introduced during the first half of the 19th century, until Henry Eckford, a Scottish horticulturist transformed the sweet pea from a simple garden flower to a spectacular specimen.
Eckford’s life’s work involved cross-breeding the sweet pea, creating countless strong cultivars, like ‘Princess of Wales’, ‘Indigo King’, ‘Orange Prince’, ‘Apple Blossom’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Duke of Clarence’ and 150 others!
In the early 20th century, Silas Cole introduced the first waved sweet pea varieties. They became so popular that it was believed they would entirely replace the plain standard forms. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, as both forms continue to exist today.
Sweet peas are still very popular, especially in cottage style gardens. They come in numerous forms and colours, from climbing to bushing and short to tall. Many varieties have intoxicating fragrances, some stronger than others.
9 Reasons to Plant Sweet Peas:
- Pollinator friendly – If planted in a vegetable garden, will attract pollinators, thereby improving crop yield.
- Have an intoxicating, delicious fragrance.
- Make an excellent cut flower bouquet.
- The more flowers you harvest, the more flowers they will produce.
- Easy to save seeds.
- Produces a tall flower barrier when grown up a trellis or trellis wall.
- Very easy to grow.
- A hardy flower, will bloom until a hard freeze.
- Thrives in a cooler climate, making it an ideal choice for the northeast.
Some of my favourite varieties:
- ‘Painted Lady’ – heirloom variety released in 1737, this variety was the first cultivar sold after being discovered in Sicily. Rose-coloured with white wings, very fragrant. A tall climber, may grow up to 8 feet.
- ‘Cupani’s Original’ – the original sweet pea discovered by Francis Cupani in Sicily. Intensely fragrant variety with deep maroon and violet coloured petals.
- ‘Strawberry Fields’ – a wavy, ruffled variety with coral red and cream petals, reminiscent of strawberries. Has a sweet aroma and strong flower stems, making it ideal for bouquets.
- ‘April in Paris’ – cream petals with dark lilac tinted edges. A tall climber with a strong fragrance.
- ‘Jewels of Albion’ – is a combination of five sweet pea varieties, mixed together by Renee’s Garden Seeds – ‘Flora Norton’ (pastel blue), ‘Lord Nelson’ (deep blue), ‘Mrs. Collier’ (creamy-white), ‘Lady Grisel Hamilton’ (pastel lavender) and ‘Captain of the Blues’ (mauve-blue). Together, these five combinations create a stunning bouquet, that blooms continuously throughout the season. Another highly fragrant mix.
- ‘Canada Day’ – a red and white sweet pea mix from Mr. Fothergill’s Seed company.
When to Begin sowing Sweet Pea Seeds
Start your sweet pea seeds approximately 6 weeks prior to the final frost date. For specific planting dates for your area, please refer to my Seed Starting Calculator.
Why it’s better to grow your Sweet Peas in root trainers
Sweet peas thrive in cooler conditions and may be sown directly in the garden as soon as the soil may be worked. However, the weather doesn’t always cooperate and in some years winter may drag on. In this case, I recommend giving your sweet peas a head start by planting them in root trainers, toilet paper rolls or a container with some extra depth.
A root trainer is designed to train the plant’s roots into a downwards direction, without spinning around themselves. A toilet paper roll can create similar growing conditions.
Here’s What to Do:
Tools Needed For Seed Saving:
- Root trainers, toilet paper rolls or plastic cups (importance is container depth)
- Seed tray to collect water from below
- Clear plastic dome or plastic wrap
- Seed starting mix or ProMix Bx
- Fresh sweet pea seeds
- Dibber or pencil – to create planting holes – easier with a tool, but may use your finger
- Small watering can
- Hint: Soak seeds for 24 hours prior to planting, thereby helping to speed germination. Only soak your seeds if you are planning on getting them potted up after the 24 hour period. Soaking is not a must, as they will eventually germinate without it. Give your seed trays a good soaking after planting.
- Plant two seeds, set at least 1/2 an inch apart, in each cell of your root trainer.
- Be patient! Sweet peas are slow to germinate and may take 2 to 3 weeks.
- Tip: After your sweet peas have developed their second set of true leaves, pinch off the top set of leaves or the central growing tip, to encourage side branching. Pinching out discourages legginess and produces a more vigorous, bushy plant. Pinch out just above the leaf joint.
- Sweet peas are heavy feeders, be sure to add composted manure or homemade compost to your soil, during planting time.
- Choose a garden trellis or structure for your sweet pea plants and set it out prior to transplanting. Doing so afterwards may be complicated, as plants grow in many directions and lose their structure.
- Two weeks before the final frost date, transplant two plant cells (with 2 seedlings per cell) at the base of each bamboo cane or trellis support. Sweet peas are hardy enough to withstand a sudden drop in nighttime temperatures.
- Watch as your sweet pea seedlings find their trellis supports and fill out in constant blooms.
Feel free to plant a mix of sweet pea varieties. The colours are extremely attractive in the garden and will attract many pollinator-friendly insects.
Sweet peas have been appreciated by gardeners world-wide for hundreds of years. To this day, their appeal hasn’t changed. Although the number of available varieties has decreased in the past 100 years, people continue to grow and enjoy them.
In my garden, sweet peas hold a key position next to the garden gate. They greet me as I approach, ready to work or harvest and I often stop by just for a sniff. They will continue to hold their key position, as I look forward to growing my favourites and many I haven’t tried before.
- Thomas, Harry H. (1909). Sweet Peas and How to Grow Them. Cassell and Company, Limited. London, 1-4.
Here are the tools that I mentioned in the post.