I used to grow flowers for cutting, and sold them through a local cafe. It soon became obvious any bunch of flowers containing sweet peas would sell whole a lot faster than those without them. Everyone loved the ‘old-fashioned’ scent sweet peas brought to a bouquet. But for cut flower growers there’s a trade-off between the long stemmed, big, blousy flowers which look good in a vase, and the fragrance that makes sweet peas so appealing. Plant breeders have produced wonderful sweet pea varieties, with long, straight stems and large blooms in a range of colours. But many of these are lacking that essential perfume. In contrast, the sweet pea first introduced into cultivation in this country had much smaller and more fragrant flowers.
Despite being a well-loved and widely grown flower, the true origin of sweet peas is uncertain. A wild relative of the cultivated sweet pea can be found growing in southern Italy and some of the Mediterranean islands. And it was from Sicily that the first sweet pea seeds were sent to botanic gardens and collectors. The plant was described by Francesco Cupani, a Franciscan monk and botanist who became one of the founders of a botanic garden in Misilmeri near Palermo, Sicily. He travelled throughout Sicily and wrote the Hortus Catholicus, published in 1696, which catalogues the flora of the island. Cupani found the plant which was to become the ancestor of our garden sweet peas growing wild in the Sicilian countryside and named it ‘Lathyrus distoplatyphylos, hirsutus, mollis, magno et peramoeno, flare odoro’ – quite a mouthful compared to Lathyrus odoratus, the name given by Linnaeus. The original Sicilian sweet pea was a scrambling plant with small, bicoloured flowers that had a strong scent. In 1699, Cupani sent some of the seeds he had collected to horticultural contacts in other parts of Europe. These included Dr Robert Uvedale, a school teacher and botanist living in Enfield, Middlesex.
Uvedale had gained a reputation in the horticultural world for his skill in cultivating exotic and unusual plants. His garden was said to be one of the finest in the country, and one of the few at the time to have a hothouse. The sweet pea seeds sent from Sicily must have been grown in this garden and, although it was maybe not as glamorous as some of the other exotics it grew alongside, the scent must have marked it out as something special.
It took some time for the plant to become popular among British gardeners. By the end of the eighteenth century there were maybe five varieties in cultivation, but plant breeders and enthusiasts have now increased this to a point where the National Collection holds over 1,300 varieties. With so much choice, sweet peas have become an established summer garden favourite – easy to grow, good for cutting and for attracting pollinators. If you want to have a go at growing the original sweet pea (or at least one that is very closely related to those first seeds sent by Francesco Cupani), there is the variety ‘Cupani’, a beautiful, bicolored, purple flower with a scent that can fill a room. Seeds of sweet pea ‘Cupani’ are available from many of the seed catalogues – try Sarah Raven, Seedaholic or Unwins. Sow seeds now and you will be enjoying the wonderful, old-fashioned fragrance of sweet peas all through the summer months.