In 1695, Father Francis Cupani, a botanist, noticed a pretty, exquisitely scented, flowering vine growing wild in the Sicilian mountainside—the annual sweet pea. Smitten, Father Cupani sent some seeds to Robert Uvedale, an English botanist and teacher, who in turn shared them with other plantsmen. More than 300 years later, the intoxicating perfume of the sweet pea’s heritage varieties, the bold colours of large-flowered, modern varieties and its suitability as a cut flower continue to win new fans.
My favourite is still ‘Matucana’ (a.k.a. ‘Cupani’s Original’), one of the earliest known Lathyrus odoratus varieties. Its ultra-fragrant flowers are bicolour deep red and purple, with a seductive scent reminiscent of orange blossoms and honey. Grow ‘Matucana’ and all sweet peas by soaking the seeds at least overnight, then sowing them directly into a sunny spot in the garden in early spring as soon as soil can be worked. These plants like deep, moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a near-neutral pH, amended with lots of well-rotted manure and compost. Despite being sun-lovers, they prefer cool conditions, so water well during hot, dry periods, mulch and shade from the midday sun. Climbing varieties, such as the two-metre-tall ‘Matucana’, need netting or other sturdy supports. Pick blooms often to encourage flowering. As a bonus, sweet peas fix nitrogen in their roots to improve the soil.
‘Old Spice’ heritage sweet pea
Height: 2 m Spread: 30 cm
Notes: Exceptional heat tolerance; introduced from Sicily around 1699, lost to trade, then rediscovered in 1907
Flowers: mid-sized blooms; mixture of rose and cream, pink and scarlet, and two-toned purple; the sweetest sweet pea scent
‘Painted Lady’ heritage sweet pea
Height: 1.2 to 2 m Spread: 30 cm
Notes: one of the first named cultivars, introduced in 1737
Flowers: medium-sized; bicolour carmine pink and white; intensely fragrant
‘Royal Family’ heritage sweet pea
Height: 1.5 m Spread: 30 cm
Notes: finest climbing variety; long, strong stems; good heat resistance Flowers: large-sized blooms in mixture of white, pink, taupe, coral red and purple; delicate fragrance
Excellent modern types
‘Mammoth’: prized colours
‘Explorer’: very free-flowering