No one is certain of the true origin of sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), but what we do know is that in 1699, Francesco Cupani (1657-1710) – a member of the Order of St. Francis and first director of the botanic garden in Misilmeri, near Palermo, Sicily – sent wild sweet pea seeds to Dr. Robert Uvedale (1642-1722), horticulturist and headmaster of Enfield Grammar School, who kept both gardens and hothouses in what is now north London, England. Interestingly, 275 years later, breeder Dr. Keith Hammett collected seed from the wild sweet peas that still flourish in Sicily, and gardeners who want to grow the original blue and purple flower should look for ‘Cupani’s Original’ or ‘Original’.
Plant profile: Sweet peas
Immediately popular due to their sweet scent, over the next 150 years, sweet peas steadily rose in popularity, and named varieties became increasingly common. The first of these was ‘Painted Lady’ with pink standards and white wings; in cultivation since 1731, this cultivar’s modern forms usually bear four (rather than the original two) flowers per stem. By the mid-1800s, seed companies on both sides of the Atlantic were busily engaged in breeding programs, but it wasn’t until a Scot named Henry Eckford, V.M.H. (1823- 1905) – “Father of the Sweet Pea” – came on the scene that serious progress began to be made.
In 1879, Eckford began hybridizing sweet peas, introducing his first cultivar, ‘Bronze Prince’, in 1882. Credited with improving the form of the flowers while expanding their size and colour palette, he never sacrificed the scent of the older strains. These new, larger blooms became known as Grandifloras, and by 1900, Eckford had singlehandedly introduced 115 new cultivars.
But the summer of 1899 was a curious one. That year, Henry Eckford’s new ‘Prima Donna’ (1896) mutated in at least two gardens: One belonged to William J. Unwin, a cut-flower grower in Histon (Cambridgeshire), who, walking through his sweet pea rows after choir practice one evening, noticed that one plant stood out from all the rest. It had much larger blooms on long stems and both the standards and wings were prominently ruffled and waved. Knowing he had stumbled onto something big, he saved the seed and sensibly introduced it as ‘Gladys Unwin’ (his wife) in 1901.
Incredibly, the same scenario – minus the choir practice – played itself out in Silas Cole’s walled garden in Northamptonshire. The main difference was that Cole was head gardener to Charles, 6th Earl Spencer (Princess Diana’s great-grandfather), and his sweet pea was christened ‘Countess Spencer’. Guess which name stuck? Ironically, the walled garden at Althorp where Cole made his discovery is now derelict, while the Unwin family have gone on to become the world’s leading suppliers of sweet pea seed, including, of course, the “Spencer” types!