For nearly three centuries, the sweet pea has maintained its position of being a popular garden flower and in the course of that time this sweet scented and free blooming plant underwent many changes - resulting in many varieties of the plant. The first sweet pea plants that were sent to England from the island of Sicily did not appear to be worthwhile or popular garden plants, if we compare them to the varieties that are grown today.
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Many places have been suggested as being the home of the original sweet pea stock, among these the Italian island of Sicily, the island of Malta, China and Sri Lanka may be mentioned. One of these places is believed to be the home of the wild sweet pea from which all the cultivated varieties have been produced. Though it is not known exactly in which of these places the sweet pea originated, one historical aspect concerning the sweet pea is agreed on by most people. It is known that Francisco Cupani, recorded the sweet pea as being a new plant in Sicily way back in 1695. This is important as Cupani who was a member of the order of St. Francis in Sicily recorded it in writing, though some say, he may not have been a monk as it has been traditionally believed. Francisco Cupani was charged with the care of the botanical garden located in Misilmeri, which is about 15 km or 9 miles from Palermo the capital of Sicily. It is believed that the botanical garden he worked on was attached to the monastery, though it is not ascertainable if the sweet pea plant he recorded was actually grown in the garden or if it was found wild in the surrounding countryside. Francisco Cupani, published in the 1696 - much before Linnaeus simplified plant nomenclature - a written description of the sweet pea plant. He named the plant Lathyrus distoplatyphylos, hirsutus, mollis, magno et peramoeno, flare odoro.
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Francisco Cupani also sent some sweet pea seeds to a certain Dr Casper Commelin in 1699, the recipient of the seeds was a botanist at the School of Medicine in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Commelin would include the first known illustration of the plant in his account of the plants grown at the School, which was published in 1701. The doctor recorded in writing that Cupani had sent them the seeds of the sweet pea. Francisco Cupani may also have sent seeds to Dr Robert Uvedale at the same time, though this is not backed up by contemporary evidence.
The early botanist, Dr Uvedale was a teacher at Enfield in Middlesex, England. He was a well known enthusiast for new and unusual plants at that time. Uvedale had a very wide circle of notable friends among botanists and plant cultivators, and his garden was well known for its collection of plants and was frequented by visitors. It is known that Uvedale also cultivated the sweet pea in his garden, the proof comes from a herbarium specimen from 1700, which was prepared by a certain Dr Leonard Plukenet and which is now in the British Museum of Natural History in London. This specimen was probably one of the plant specimens from Dr Uvedale's garden.
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One of the theories about the origin of sweet peas is that these plants originated in the island nation of Ceylon - modern day Sri Lanka. The biological name, Lathyrus zeylandicus was used to describe the pink and white-flowered species of sweet pea by the taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753, this plant was believed to have come from Sri Lanka, and this along with many other red herrings, was utilized by the great botanical expert, Bernard Jones to support the view as late as 1986, that the sweet peas had indeed originated in Sri Lanka. The same belief was also held by a respected authority on plants, E. R. Janes in his survey conducted in 1953. Thus until quite recently, in the view of most experts, the sweet pea was believed to originate from Sri Lanka.
Publications at Cornell University made in 1897 would also lend support to this view, when it released one of a series of otherwise excellent publications on the sweet pea. These papers from the university make the assertion that Francisco Cupani was the one who actually brought the pink and white sweet pea variety from Ceylon to Italy. Aside from the fact that Cupani may never have traveled outside his native Italy the absence of wild sweet peas in the island of Sri Lanka should have given the publishers cause for concern. The Flora of Ceylon published in the year 1980 established the fact that there are no wild sweet pea varieties on that island. The island of Malta was also said to be a possible place where the wild sweet pea was found.
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China has also been seen as a possible home of the wild sweet pea, the Chinese origin of the sweet pea was supported as recently as 1985. The continent of South America is also believed to be another possible home of the wild sweet pea, this view was supported by the discovery of the variety 'Quito' collected from one garden in Quito - the capital of Ecuador; another variety of the sweet pea plant called 'Matucana' found in a place of the same name in the country of Peru is also said to support the view that South America is the home of the original wild sweet pea plant. To add to the confusion, there were also varieties of the sweet pea growing in Peru, that sounded similar to the "Scilla peroviana," variety which grows in the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean region - namely Spain, Portugal and Morocco, these varieties called 'Sicilian Pink' and 'Sicilian Fuchsia' also found at Matucana in Peru, are named in honor of Francisco Cupani and are without a doubt the descendants of plants introduced by the early colonists in Peru.
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Dr Keith Hammett, botanist and sweet pea collector collected the seed of wild sweet peas from Sicily in the 1970's and these are now grown under the name 'Original' or 'Cupani's Original' in many places around the world.
More and more varieties of sweet pea were being grown and were being discovered by the turn of the century. Many of these varieties were sourced from different places or produced by hybridization, some were listed for a year or two before they disappeared without trace, while other varieties were formally given names but never listed by the commercial seed houses and were distributed to individual buyers, only to disappear with time. However, as is commonly seen when a new flower comes into the limelight and captures the public eye, many of these so called "new" introductions or varieties were not improved types or special varieties, indeed they seem to be not very different from their predecessors and previously known varieties.
A variety that can be considered to be a significant introduction was the 'Invincible Carmine' from Thomas Laxton of Bedford - who was better known and famed for his 'Laxton's Superb' and other apple varieties. This variety of sweet pea was awarded an FCC in 1883, and is famed for being the first sweet pea variety produced as a result of deliberate pollination by hand. At around the same time in 1883, the 'Bronze Prince' one of the first sweet pea varieties introduced by Henry Eckford's was also given the FCC award.
The 'Bronze Prince' sweet pea variety introduced by Eckford was a striking improvement and transformation of the sweet pea flower. It showed an improved form, was larger in size and had new colors, while retaining the strong and classic fragrance which was such a characteristic feature of the original wild species of sweet pea. Eckford was responsible for the introduction of 115 new varieties by 1900 out of a total number of 264 varieties of sweet pea being grown at the time, this total number of varieties of sweet pea included many highly transient varieties that were lost later. The enterprising Henry Eckford first saw success breeding other flower varieties, he used this experience to produce sweet pea varieties later. Eckford worked as the head gardener to the Earl of Radnor, as a gardener he introduced many new varieties of pelargonium, verbena and dahlia for the Radnor gardens. Later on, Eckford went on to work for a Dr Sankey of Sandywell near Gloucester for the express purpose of raising new varieties of sweet pea. Eckford would work for Dr Sankey from 1870 onwards, he methodically crossed, selected and fixed new sweet pea varieties and his 'Bronze Prince' was the first sweet pea variety produced by this intensive labor to be released to the public at large. At a later date, Eckford moved with Dr Sankey to Shropshire, where he set up his breeding and trials fields in the Shropshire town of Wem around 1888. Here he would work to produce many new varieties of the sweet pea.
Eckford was singularly responsible for bringing out a succession of Grandiflora sweet peas till the last years of the century, these varieties were called Grandiflora, because the flowers on them were noticeably larger than flowers usually seen on the original Cupani variety. Some of the more famous Grandiflora's include the 'Princess of Wales' which came out in 1888, the 'Captain of the Blues' from 1889, as well as the 'Prima Donna' variety of 1896 and the 'Lady Grisel Hamilton' variety that came out in 1898. Thus, Eckford singularly bred many new varieties of the sweet pea.
Eckford was in fact responding to an increased demand from gardeners in the United States for new varieties of the sweet pea flower - this increased demand in the market drove him to produce many new varieties. Eckford's sweet pea varieties were first offered in the United States by James Breck in 1886, by the 1890s the demand for these new varieties increased, partly led by the enthusiasm of notable gardeners such as the Reverend W. T. Hutchins, who increased the popularity of the flower varieties. Some of the well known American sweet pea varieties of the times included the 'Blanche Ferry' of 1889, the 'America' variety of 1897, as well as the 'Janet Scott' 1903 and 'Flora Norton' 1904, varieties. This short list of varieties itself makes it quite clear, that many of the sweet pea varieties that are regarded as classic and old-fashioned English sweet peas, and some of which have been attributed to Eckford, were in fact originated in the New World.
The variety known as the 'Blanche Ferry', was developed from the 'Old Painted Lady' variety, and is actually the first known of the sweet pea varieties to originate within the continental United States. This variety has an interesting history in the United States; it is said, that a quarryman's wife in New York State grew the 'Painted Lady' in her private garden for over a quarter of a century. Each year she is said to have saved her own seed from her growing plants, these plants were grown on limestone ledges with unusually shallow soil. The plants that she grew started to show distinct characteristics of their own in fifteen years time, the plants developed and had such compact growth on these limestone ledges that they no longer needed to be supported by stakes and began to bloom together. D. M. Ferry & Co introduced her variety to the market as the 'Blanche Ferry' in 1889, thus, this popular American classic originated in a private garden of a hobbyist.
Many of the American bred varieties, including the early flowering types are descended from this particular variety. The early flowering variety of the sweet pea was "discovered" in the same year that the 'Blanche Ferry' was released in the market, when it was noticed that a few early-flowering plants were present in the trial fields of D.M. Ferry & Co. These early flowering variety was later introduced as the 'Extra Early Blanche Ferry' in 1894 and became very popular. This variety is sensitive and weak when grown out of doors, however, it gave good flowers and cropped in winter and could grow well when protected under glass.
The next major sweet pea variety released following the introduction of the 'Blanche Ferry', was the release by James Vicks' Sons of the "double" flowered variety of sweet pea. In this variety of sweet pea, the peculiar look of the flower is created by the presence of an extra standard, sometimes two, and these days this variety is simply called the duplex - it is also a descendent of the 'Blanche Ferry' sweet pea variety. When the double flowered variety was first introduced, it was initially called the 'Bride of Niagara'.
Sweet pea varieties continued to be introduced, and by 1911, the number of varieties being bred and introduced came to an amazing total of one hundred and thirty five new types of sweet pea, in the United States and Britain taken together.
In Britain, sweet peas had gained tremendous popularity by 1900, so much so, that a Sweet Pea Bi-Centenary Celebration was staged in London by enthusiasts. This floral display and show must have been a remarkable event for that time based on the flower varieties entered in the competition, in one of the competitive classes, one hundred bunches of sweet peas in ten different shades were called; while in another class, there was a call for forty eight bunches in no fewer than thirty six varieties of sweet pea. In this celebration, a small subsection of enthusiastic participants were amateurs who actually grew their own flowers in their gardens rather than employing a gardener. In fact, the common names of sweet pea varieties that we still know today are a legacy of the various classes sponsored by different persons, for example the Carters, Suttons and Robert Bolton.
The variety known as the 'Countess Spencer' was deep rose pink in color and a contemporary report gives glowing praise to this variety. This variety signaled the arrival of the waved standard and while Eckford's Grandifloras, and varieties produced by other breeders would continue to dominate the market for some more years, the impact of the 'Countess Spencer' and its derivatives was such that, they were instantly favorites and were increasingly preferred over the other varieties of sweet pea.
The Unwins variety of sweet pea also gained popularity for a few years among floral enthusiasts, and from 1905 to 1909, approximately fifteen different Unwins varieties were introduced, though most of them were raised by W. J. Unwin, some were produced by others and only bear his name. The Unwins variety of sweet pea lost out in popularity to the larger form and extra waviness displayed by the Spencer type and in time, W. J. Unwin himself began growing and developing the Spencer variety of sweet pea, in some cases by mixing and hybridizing it with the Unwins type, to produce an increasing range of, fixed, Spencer varieties of the sweet pea.
Due to the profusion of sweet pea varieties, a great enthusiasm for the sweet pea as a garden plant was evident in many places in the early part of the twentieth century; the Spencer type in particular was extremely popular in this era. There were further hybridization and crossing of both the Grandifloras and the Spencer variety of plants for some years and new varieties kept coming into vogue. New varieties of Spencer's arose by back-crossing 'Countess Spencer' on to Grandifloras of various forms and colors, these breeding experiments led to an increased color range of the Spencer variety and making crosses between Spencer's also brought new hybrids. Such crosses also isolated mutations or "sports" as they were called at this time.
Though many enthusiasts would continue to cultivate Grandifloras as preferred sweet pea varieties, the newly introduced Spencer types soon dominated the market, the enthusiasm for sweet peas also continued among gardeners and floral enthusiasts. At the RHS garden in Wisley, England, between 1921 and 1925, over six hundred different sweet pea stocks of were trialed and studied for their suitability and other characteristics. As the space was not sufficient to handle this enormous stock at one time or in one season, these different stocks were divided into color groups and a different range of plants were grown every year for the duration of the trials. These stocks grown in the trail contained almost no Cupids and none of the early flowering sweet pea varieties. A large number, totaling some three hundred and twenty one stocks were grown for trial in 1931 as well.
New varieties of sweet peas kept being produced in the United States. Some of these new varieties were far more tolerant of the hot summers that could not be tolerated well by the Spencer's and Grandifloras. At the same time, some of these new varieties were also developed for cropping as cut flowers under glass. This profusion of new sweet pea flowers reignited enthusiasm for the sweet pea plant among gardeners.
Many plant cultivators and flower enthusiasts around the world have introduced different sweet pea varieties since the arrival of the Spencers, these new types are often have larger flowers, or bear flowers in a new and more consistent form, or bear flowers with thicker petals, as well as sweet peas that have a better arrangement of flowers on the stem for exhibition, and which are more consistent in producing at least four flowers per stem even when grown in less than ideal conditions. The sweet pea has undergone great changes and its vigor and growth characteristics have been improved and most contemporary varieties will reach almost twice the height of the early, pre-Spencer sweet peas even when grown under less than ideal growth conditions. The many varieties of sweet pea also come in different colors, these include flowers that are of the purest white and those in every shade of pink to orange and red varieties, as well as many shades of lavender and blue through to almost black colored flowers. The development of flower varieties with these new colors combined with the other attributes have constantly improved the flower and the sweet pea grown today greatly differs from the original wild type sweet pea flower.
Professional plant breeders as well as amateur plant enthusiasts and hobbyists continue to introduce many new varieties of the sweet pea flower in the market. The market for flowers is actually one major driving force responsible for the continuous introduction of new sweet pea varieties; this is because every major retail seed company, and the sweet pea specialists and professional gardeners, tend to promote and develop unique and unusual sweet pea varieties of their own.
The arrival of the Spencer's sweet pea was followed by the coming of other varieties of sweet peas, including the early-flowering varieties like the Cuthbertsons, which are important in many regions of the United States as they tend bloom before the summer heat turns excessive. New varieties also include the productive cut flower types like the Royals, as well as the tendril less types like the 'Snoopea', the 'Supersnoop' and the 'Explorer'. The more recent 'New Century Series' is also an addition to the eclectic variety of sweet peas grown in the United States. New varieties have also included a range of Intermediate types, growing about ninety cm or 3 ft in height, mention may be made of the 'Jet Set Series' in this regard. Many flowered varieties of the sweet pea include the Multiflora types that can bear up to eleven, but usually bear six to eight flowers on a stem such as the Early Multiflora Giganteas and the "Galaxys" variety. In recent years, their has also been a resurgence of interest in the dwarf varieties of sweet pea derived from the types called the Cupids, which were introduced for the first time in 1898. Therefore, the market for sweet peas is thriving and there is a great demand for these flowers among professional gardeners and hobbyist alike.
The large flowered waved sweet pea varieties that were introduced as follow ups to the original 'Countess Spencer' and 'Gladys Unwin' can be said to include the 'Mrs. C. Kay' variety, the 'Noel Sutton' variety, the 'Nora Holman' variety, as well as the 'Mrs. R. Bolton', and the 'Mrs. Bernard Jones', and the 'Jilly', the 'Midnight', the 'Windsor', the 'Leamington', and the 'Southampton' varieties - there are many more such varieties as well. In the 1980's, the Grandifloras again began to be favored as garden plants though they had remained largely neglected before this time, therefore since the 1980s interest in this group has seen a revival with the subsequent re-introduction of the original varieties, or the replicas of original types. A lot of professional plant breeders such as Peter Grayson, the Unwins and E. W. King yet again introduce new varieties of sweet pea stocks in the Grandiflora variations.
Three distinct strains or variations of the sweet peas have been most affected by breeding experiments and hybridization in the modern era. The basis of breeding for characters has been largely the Spencer sweet pea variety in Britain, though breeders in this country have also experimented with dwarf varieties; in addition, Britain has also witnessed a recent revival in the development of the Grandifloras variety. At the same time, the semi-dwarf as well as the Intermediate sweet pea types and tall varieties have also attracted increasing attention in the United States. These types have been increasingly sought for commercial production in the US, along with summer heat tolerant sweet pea varieties. Dr Keith Hammett has been responsible for the introduction of the bicolor types in New Zealand, where the 'fancy' varieties of sweet pea have also dominated.
The semi-dwarf, tendril less sweet pea type was introduced by E.W. King, along with the 'Snoopea' variety. This group has recently sparked a renewed interest in these varieties of sweet pea, with the introduction of their 'New Century Constellation' Series. The sweet pea variety known as the 'Pink Cupid' has also attracted a renewed interest and is proving to be popular as a garden centre plant, in the market, the seedlings of this variety are sold in striking pink pots to emphasize the floral characteristics. A modern series of the 'Cupid' type has also been developed and introduced by Tony Hender of the British plant breeders Floranova; the same type has also been introduced by Seedlynx. The 'Cupid' types have also been worked on by amateur breeder Andrew Beane, who has laid special emphasis on the striped dwarfs, as shown by the 'Pinocchio Series' he introduced to the market. Russian breeders have also introduced dwarf types into Western Europe, these types have kept winning awards and are increasingly available in Western Europe.
The market has also witnessed the reappearance of tall and tendril free sweet pea types in recent times - these are very popular with gardeners. These varieties have won many awards, for example, Harvey Albutt's 'Astronaut' won an AM at the Wisley held in 1989. Later, this variety was worked on by Thompson & Morgan to form a variety with a consistent range of colors - these were released as a mixture, 'Astronaut Mixed', in 2002. This mixed type still has to be proven to be considered sufficiently high quality to please exhibitors - the mixed type is aimed at exhibitors, as these buyers routinely remove tendrils on exhibited plants and will perhaps appreciate the naturally tendril free sweet pea. This was not the first time that a tendril free variety has been introduced, a variety called 'Spaceman' was introduced by Peter Grayson in 1997; this variety is pale blue in coloration and can grow quite tall.
The sweet pea variety known as 'Supersnoop' was also an improvement on the tendril free 'Snoopea' sweet pea; this variety was very successful in the market and was later followed by the 'Explorer Series' with its impressive colors, long stems and strong visual impact. The 'Explorer Series' have impressed by winning many awards for the separate colors at RHS trials, however, these rather spectacular varieties of sweet pea are not easy to find in the market. Gardeners have also on occasion been attracted by much shorter mixtures such as the 'Patio' and the 'Little Sweetheart,' however, these types have not gained much popularity and can usually be seen in the last lines of catalogues published by professional breeders.