SWEET PEAS

pink sweet pea flowers and buds with water droplets

Traditionally planted on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, sweet peas are grown for their pretty flowers and sweet fragrance. All parts of the plant are poisonous*, so why grow them in an edible garden? Read on and find out!

HISTORY

The antecedents of the modern sweet pea came from southern Italy, Sicily and islands in the Mediterranean Sea and Aegean Sea. In the late seventeenth century1, Francis Cupani, a Sicilian monk and botanist2, sent the seeds to collectors and botanical institutions around the world. 3

Henry Eckford, a Scottish plantsman, hybridised the plant, changing a wildflower to a popular garden and cut flower specimen. He was awarded a Victoria Medal of Honour in 1905. This award was from the Royal Horticultural Society, of which he was a member. In 1926, author C.W.J. Unwin wrote: “he found the Sweet Pea little known and as little valued, and transformed it into that glorious annual which is now found in almost every British garden.” (Sweet peas: their history, development, culture ) 4

DESCRIPTION

Sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus, a popular annual with home gardeners, come in two types: bush, which generally grow less than one metre, and vine, for which you will need a fence or trellis. Open-pollinated, heirloom varieties are available, some of those have been around for more than a century. Generally these have smaller, less showy flowers than modern hybrids; however they have a much stronger scent.

The flowering period for sweet peas last several weeks, if they are picked regularly. The colour range covers almost the full spectrum, except for pure yellow.3 The plants generally have slender stems with oval-shaped leaves. The flowers are similar in shape to edible pea flowers but much larger and showier.4 There is a variety of sweet pea which is perennial but has very little scent. 3

The seeds are the most toxic part of the plant, but the pods, leaves, stems and roots are also toxic.6
Do not eat this plant.

CULINARY and MEDICINAL USES

*Because all parts of these plants are toxic, I have not included culinary or medicinal information in this article.

GARDEN USES

The brightly coloured flowers of sweet peas attract a wide range of pollinators. The heady scent of the flowers confuses predators to the edible garden, especially in that early spring season when many brassicas are just beginning to yield their bounty.

The more flowers you pick, the more you will get; which gives a long flowering time and a natural air-fragrance for the house from the cut flowers.

Seed is easy to collect and regrow true-to-type as long as you started with open-pollinated varieties. The seed from hybrids is just as easy to collect and who knows what you might get if you plant the seeds you collect!

HOW TO GROW SWEET PEAS

Guest writer: Mischa Vlismas7

Sweet peas can be planted from St. Patrick’s Day till Anzac Day.  Of course this depends on the weather conditions.

Preparation

First: prepare the ground. Dig over to make fluffy.  If you remember, add some lime to the soil about 1-2 weeks before planting.  Erect a sturdy trellis 5 to 6 feet high.  The seeds love a soaking prior to planting.  Some people like overnight.  I sometimes get caught up with things and I don’t plant till they sprout. A bit lazy of me but then you will only be planting the sprouted ones and you won’t have bare patches.  You will still have success whichever way you go.

Sowing

Plant the seeds in a row beneath the trellis.  If there is a space from the ground to the beginning of the bottom of the trellis, guide them up – like all children need to be shown.  After a few set of true leaves, I pinch the top.  This will make the plant bushier. You can even do this again  as they find their way up the trellis.  I also like to tie some of the leaders against the trellis like a guide.  The reason for this, some of the leaders think they can do it on their  own but as they get bigger they can’t hold their position. So a little restraint and guidance is needed.; especially if it gets windy, they need that support.

Feeding / Feritilsing

There is a balance with fertiliser.  I like to make it easier for me so I throw in [slow release chicken] pellets at the time of planting the seeds. As the pellets break down, the roots of the sprouting seeds will take up their advantage.  

Too much fertiliser gives you a great looking climber but not much in flowers .  Still they need a push in the beginning. 

Harvest

If you have the room, staggering the planting is great in lengthening the flowering time. The heritage ones tend to bloom [later].

Pick them as much as possible in the beginning so the energy goes to the next lot of flowers.  The perfume of sweet peas permeates a room in a romantic, intoxicating way so that you find yourself coming up close to take in an extra inhalation of their sweet perfume.

Acknowledgement: Thanks, Mischa for all that information – your happy disposition shines through in your writing.

Until next week
Lynne 🍅

REFERENCES

  1. Catherine Boeckmann, Sweet Peas
  2. Julia Dimakos, Why You Should Grow Sweet Peas
  3. Mary H. Dyer, Learn About The History Of Sweet Peas
  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Henry Eckford
  5. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Sweet Pea
  6. Angelo Eliades, Are Ornamental Sweet Peas Edible?
  7. Mischa Vlismas, private email to author

Published by Lynne

I'm one half of the partnership that owns "Hillside Homegrown and Handmade". We teach people how to develop food security by growing some of their own, learn basic handy-person skills to complete their own DIY projects and to live in a manner which is more sustainable for themselves, their families and the earth.

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