The Somerset Sweet Pea Co
History of The Sweet Pea (Queen of Annuals)
Elegant, graceful and fragrant, the magnificent Sweet Pea has graced our gardens for over 200 years and has been aptly described as “The Queen of Annuals”We can be fairly certain that seeds first arrived in England in 1699, sent to a Dr Robert Uvedale, a schoolmaster at Enfield, Middlesex by one, Franciscus Cupani, a monk living in Sicily. The flower in those days was a mean looking thing compared to the modern cultivars, probably one, two or three blooms at most, small and on a modest, slender stem, and of maroon colour with bluish-purple wings; however it had one outstanding feature, a captivating perfume. This surely persuaded Dr Uvedale to set seed and sow again, and commend to his friends. Thus the flower became known in its small way in the early 1700’s. Like all good things its popularity spread and was offered for sale as early as 1730 named “Cupani”. We must also remember all sweet peas to date came from this simple bi colour, and if you take “Wild Swan” in my opinion the largest flowered sweet pea the stem length can be nearly 2 Feet 600mm in length and with 5 florets nearly 2 Inches 50mm across.
The first colour break from Cupanis variety recorded in England was a pink and white bi colour called “Painted Lady.”During the mid 1800’s further progress was made as a result of cross pollination by breeders and the “Sweet Pea” became established. Henry Eckford a Scott and a gentleman’s gardener in Gloucestershire was attracted to Sweet Peas and started his own breeding programme. He settled in Wem a small marked town in Shropshire, and during the next 30 years improved the sweet pea, with improved size of bloom and length of stem, whilst retaining the intrinsic quality of perfume. By the end of the century the flower had become firmly recognized as one of the nations favourites. Eckford is rightly revered as the father of the Sweet Pea.
Now to perhaps the greatest single turning point in the history of the flower. First it should be explained that the petals of the Sweet Pea were of plain outline, and devoid of that wave or frill which is so attractive a characteristic today. At this time the head gardener at Althorp Park Northamptonshire, the country seat of Earl Spencer, was one Silas Cole. Sweet Peas were a feature of the gardens, and a popular variety of the time was “Prima Donna”, a shell pink raised by Eckford,and was part of the collection at Althorp in 1899. It was now that the miracle happened, glancing over his rows of “Prima Donna, Cole noticed that the blooms on one plant were remarkably different the petals were curiously frilled. The plant was encouraged to seed and a number of plants flowered the following year retaining the frilly form and colour of the parent plant.
The following year 1901, tremendous excitement was aroused by a table exhibit of the new frilled variety now named “Countess Spencer”, at the great Sweet Pea exhibition held at the Royal Aquarium, which stood on the site of todays
Central Hall at Westminster. The whole flower world was entranced, and to meet the enormous demand a great area was put down to seed in California.
Crossed with many other colours in the Eckford plain or Grandflora range, further new frilled varieties (“The Spencer’s”) were catalogued. In 1911 The Daily Mail offered a first prize of a 1,000 pounds for the best bunch of a dozen Sweet Peas the entry was some 38,000. During and after the two World Wars progress in the Sweet Pea world continued with many new varieties. An outstanding landmark was the formation in 1901 of the National Sweet Pea Society which has done so much in the development of the flower, by holding exhibitions and conducting trials and bonding together all whom love the flower Trade and public alike.
The Sweet Pea at present is a beautiful outstanding flower. However future trends in the development of the Sweet Pea make a fascinating subject of discussion. The most obvious is the holy grail of the Sweet Pea hybridist the yellow Sweet Pea. We are not even close yet, a pure black, larger highly scented flowers on longer stems are always an improvement. However for me the complete Sweet Pea needs to have a longer vase life. Depending on the weather/temperature five days is the absolute maximum, more often than not its only four days. This needs improving, as part of our extensive breeding programme at Somerset Sweet Peas we are carrying out trials to this effect.