Stars of Spring: Sweet Peas

Sweet Peas offer a range of colorful, fragrant, and floriferous vines perfect for bridging the gap between late winter and spring. While not edible, they make up for that with their stunningly scented bright blooms. In this article we’ll discuss the history, cultural needs, and tips for growing one of the true stars of Spring.

Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are an ornamental member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) native to Southern Italy, Sicily, and the Aegean Isles. Sweet peas first came into cultivation in the late 1600’s due solely to Father Francis Cupani. Cupani had made a name for himself as the court botanist of Ferdinando II de’ Medici, before he then moved to Padua where he became a professor of botany. In his fifties Cupani joined the Cistercian order, and one day while walking near his monastery he found an intensely fragrant and colorful variety of the wild Sweet Pea. Cupani quickly sent seeds from the strain to his botanical acquaintances in the UK and across Europe, where it quickly became in vogue. By the 1800’s nurserymen like Scotsman Henry Eckford heavily bred the Sweet Pea into the colorful larger flowers we know today. As early as 1800’s Americans were planting the Sweet Pea, one of the first being Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1811.

Sweet Peas should be sown in late winter, they can be either directly sown or started indoors. If started indoors you should soak them in water overnight. Scoring the outside of the seed may also help with germination. They should be started 4-6 weeks before the last frost. DO NOT wait until the last frost to sow, it will be too late. Sweet Peas don’t mind a bit of cold, they can handle light frosts, however if temperatures drop much below freezing you may wish to cover them. Plant Sweet Peas in rich, deep, cool, slightly alkaline and well-drained soil. Digging out a foot deep trench and adding lots of compost will help amend difficult and poorly draining soil. Given they are planted in adequately rich soil they should not need additional feeding. However, if your soil is still poor, you may add an organic fertilizer high in phosphorous. Additionally, mulching around the base of each plant helps to keep the root system cool and moist.

Sweet Peas are a twining vine that grow around 6 feet tall, and will need a support to cling onto. Trellises, tomato cages and tripods are all easy supports for Sweet Peas. Once they reach 6-8 inches you may wish to pinch out the middle growing tip, this will promote a bushier and more floriferous plant. Once the flowers appear, keep picking. The more you cut, the more they produce!

Sweet Peas come in many varieties, here at Bellevue Nursery we carry over a dozen varieties and blends spanning the full range of colors. The classic Cupani’s Original resembles the wild species and features small magenta and purple bicolor blooms, and an incredible scent. Another highly fragrant variety is ‘High Scent’, which offers large pale pink flowers. Our favorite blends for color are ‘Mermaid’s Dream’, which offers mixed blue and purple jewel tones, and ‘Fire and Ice’, which offers cool white and orange/red tones, both blends are from Renee’s Garden.

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