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Old Fashioned Sweet Peas - Thompson & Morgan

Old Fashioned Sweet Peas

Bernard Jones presents the first part of a short new series on sweet peas by considering some of the older cultivars.

The term 'Old-Fashioned' refers to the sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, which came to this country from Sicily in 1699 and was developed and remarkably improved in the latter part of the last century. This group is sometimes termed grandifloras. The seed was sent by a Catholic priest, Franciscus Cupani, to Dr. Robert Uvedale, headmaster of the Foundation School at Enfield, Middlesex (the actual school still continues, but as Enfield Grammar School).

The new 'scented pea', created a stir. A specimen of this plant was preserved in an Herbarium (book of dried plants) by the Royal Botanist, Leonard Plukenet, and can still be seen at the Department of Botany at the British Museum (Natural History) at South Kensington. The colour of the variety was, broadly, maroon standard and purple wings, but in 1718 a white mutation or 'sport' appeared, followed in 1726 by another bicolour - pink standard and white wings, which was named 'Painted Lady'. A few more sports followed, and in 1793 Mason, a seedsman in Fleet St., London, produced the first list of sweet pea seed in five separate colours - purple, red, white, pink and black'.

Breeding by cross-fertilisation commenced in the mid 1800s, followed, more notably, in the 1870s, when Thomas Laxton produced a few much improved varieties. Already becoming singularly prominent was a Scot, Henry Eckford, who, during his employment in charge of the gardens at various great estates, had become especially interested in plant breeding. He turned to sweet peas in 1870, and was soon producing varieties vastly improved in every respect: larger blooms, often in fours in place of twos and threes, and mostly without the old hooded standards and notched wings. These were on longer stems, and in a wide range of innovatory colours and shades.

Needing more room and personal time to cope with the increasing demand for his new varieties, he settled for his own Nursery at Wem, Shropshire, in 1888, and henceforward- until his death in 1905 he continued to produce further numbers of new varieties each year, creating a worldwide demand for seed. Wem became the Mecca of the horticultural world, and Henry Eckford will ever be known as the 'Father of the Sweet Pea'.

In 1899, an Eckford shell pink variety, 'Prima Donna', growing at Althorp Park, the ancestral home of Princess Diana, startlingly produced (as a sport) a pink variety with very large and frilly blooms; this was named 'Countess Spencer' and is the ancestor of our modern 'Spencer' varieties. These have generally taken over from the Old-Fashioned, but the latter, though with smaller blooms and without frill, still possess great charm and provide a lovely range of colour and a super abundance of glorious perfume.

The following continue to be available from many seed firms, in separate varieties or as an Heirloom mixture:

America - scarlet red stripes on white
Black Knight - chocolate maroon
Captain of the Blues - deep mauve blue
Cupani (the original) - maroon standard, purple wings
Dorothy Eckford - white
Flora Norton - light blue
Henry Eckford - orange
Janet Scott - pale salmon pink
King Edward VII - crimson
Lord Nelson - navy blue
Matucana - maroon/violet bi-colour
Miss Wilmott - deep carmine orange
Mrs. Collier - cream
Mrs. Walter Wright - lavender Painted Lady - pink and white bi-colour
Prima Donna - soft pink
Queen Alexandra - scarlet
Quito - purple
Sicilian Pink - pink
Violet Queen

Cultivation

The cultivation of these Old-Fashioned varieties need be quite simple. Sowing can be from early February to mid-March depending on the flowering time needed. Seeds that are black or pebbly-looking are best 'chipped', i.e. a small portion of the seed coat removed with a sharp knife from the opposite side to the 'eye'. This is to avoid germination delay. Use a reliable seed compost, e.g. John Innes No. 1, made moist (but still crumbly) a few days beforehand. The common 'tomato' type boxes, 16 x 10 x 4ins (40 x 25 x 10cm) make convenient containers.

Fill the box two thirds full with the compost, give a good soak with a watering can and allow to drain. Fill to the top with the moist compost and level off. Sow 2 inches (5cm) apart in holes 1 inch (2½cm) deep and in lengthwise rows also 2 inches (5cm) apart, i.e. five rows and eight seeds each. Fill in and consolidate gently but firmly with a wooden block, then slide into a large plastic bag and germinate in a warm greenhouse or room indoors. Finally, examine from day 4 onwards for very first sign of soil 'lift', when remove from bag immediately and take out to a cold frame in an open part of the garden, ensuring slug bait is present. If using pots, clay, fibre or plastic, employ the same technique.

Keep glass on snugly (adding further covering, e.g. sacking, if frosty) until germination is complete, then grow the plants on slowly as follows. Firstly, ensure they are well up to the glass to avoid being drawn. Protect with extra covering during sharp frosts and if the compost does become frozen retain this covering until thawed out, i.e. ensure a slow thaw. Allow air back and front in normal cold weather, and remove glass altogether whenever temperatures improve. Avoid sparrow attack with plastic netting and ensure constant renewal of slug bait.

When each plant has made two pairs of open leaves, remove its growing point above to induce the appearance of two or three side-shoots from the stem below - it is these which build up into the bushy, branching plant during the flowering season. Meantime, select the growing quarters - a site as open as possible from east, south and west, then dig and fork thoroughly and enrich and work well in ensuring a fine tilth. A strip 2ft (60cm) wide and 10ft (300cm) long will take a double row with 6 inches (15cm) between plants and 10 inches (25cm) between rows; or circular clumps of six or seven plants, 1ft (30cm) diameter and 2ft (60cm) apart, centre to centre.

Plant out from early April onwards, weather and soil being suitable, delaying if a late sowing was made. Remove one side of the box and then work inwards, removing the bushy plants one by one and carefully preserving soil and root system as intact as possible. Plant firmly into a hole with the bottom side-shoot at soil level, then insert a few bushy twigs about each plant for initial support. Remember slug bait and taut strands of black cotton from end to end of the row against sparrows. Finally, erect the climbing medium 6ft (180cm) high; bushy pea sticks if possible, but wide-mesh plastic netting will do if supported on wire stretched taut top and bottom above each row. If clumps are to be formed use tall bamboo canes to hold the netting. Whichever arrangement is employed, remember the insurance value of a supporting wire along the top of the row.

During the growing season all that is required is to see to watering, a little feeding (e.g. Phostrogen) if needed, a systemic spray against greenfly if seen, and a gentle 'push-in' to any shoot threatening to lose grip and fall outwards.

A long season of delightful blooms and continuous bowls of lovely colour and superb perfume for the house are now assured, but remember to always cut 'hard', i.e. with top bud just opening. If for an exhibit, size of bloom and length of stem can be increased by richer ground preparation and additional seasonal feeding.

The National Sweet Pea Society commemorated the centenary of Henry Eckford's coming to Wem by holding a Provincial Show in the town, this including a special section for Grandifloras, and it has now been decided by the townsfolk to make this an annual event as a continuing expression of the bond that exists between Wem, Henry Eckford and the Sweet Pea.

Bernard Jones is the author of the Complete Guide to Sweet Peas.

Source of article
Growing From Seed - Winter 1988-89 Vol. 3 Number 1
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan