August 27, 2008  
Sweet Pea

Reminds me of Popeye's nickname for Olive Oyl, Swee' Pea, or his name for the boy found on his door step that he adopted (just a bit later), also, Swee' Pea.  

The sweet pea I'm writing about is a plant in my front yard. I visited a long time friend several years ago in the vicinity of Tarrytown, N.Y. near the Washington Irving estate. After visiting several of the areas art and historic districts and a few lovely gardens, we returned to her home to see her gardens.  

There growing on one side of her house was a sweet pea of such a vivid pink that I was compelled to ask for a few seedpods. I believe it came from either the aforementioned estate or one of the local cemeteries in the area.  


I germinated some of the seeds and have had it ever since. It is truly a hardy perennial for me, too. Natives of the eastern Mediterranean region as well as North and East Africa and South America's temperate regions, Lathryus odoratus, clump forming and climbing, consist of more than 150 species and countless hybrids of both annual and perennial varieties.  

Mine appears to be Lythrus grandiflora, aka Everlasting pea, from Italy (including Sicily), Slovenia to Albania, and Bulgaria. While opening with near red/pink blossoms, they fade to soft lavender as they age and give way to younger blooms.  

Once a sweet pea lover, it's easy to get caught up in the magnificent array of colors and fragrances from a family of groups, each offering something special. It's dizzying, and oh, so, seductive.  

When I first moved up to the Catskills in 1976, a homestead nearby was festooned with sweet peas on an impossible-to-mow steep bank that sparkled with red and pink and purple color. It received a fair amount of sunlight, and I never stopped thinking about it. What a great use of an ornamental plant on an otherwise unsightly stretch that might just be a weedy haven: a wonderful choice instead of the other legume, crown vetch. It has its uses, but not this one's ornamental characteristics.  

Some varieties have scents strong enough to be detected several yards away. Depending on where you wish to put in a plant or a stand, decide whether you wish a climbing effect or a sprawling effect. If you like the latter, simply erect a small brush pile on the sunny side of your plants and they will eventually climb through and over and cover it and provide a display that is spectacular.  

Grown and cultivated since the 1600s, today we have over 1,000 varieties of sweet pea. We have flower petals that are smooth and velvety, crinkled and wavy, fragrances that range from very subtle to noticeably strong and desirable. Plants range from dwarf to clumping to climbing.  

Make sure to remember that sweet pea seeds are poisonous, unlike most other peas. Seeds available today will cover a huge spectrum of varieties and should offer nearly 100% germination success. Soak them for 24 hours and most will swell appreciably. Any with hard coats can then be sorted out and scarified with a file or a bit of sandpaper, so they can take up the necessary moisture. Germination will be most rapid in temps 55 to 65 degrees F.  

Soil with a pH near 7.0, well drained, rich in humus and compost, will yield young plants quickly. Be sure to weed frequently, and provide liquid fertilizer weekly. Choose a place with plenty of sunshine and good air drainage for your sweet peas. Vining varieties may be trained on strings or branches, or chicken wire. If you wish to cut them and bring indoors, do so before seeds develop. This will prolong flowering. As soon as seeds begin to form, the sweet pea will stop flowering.  

Cut them with a sharp knife, plunge the stems into warm water with a bit of floral preservative and you'll have wonderful cuts for inside, longer blooming outside, and a great season of sweet peas.  

      There is something about sun and soil that heals broken bodies and jangled nerves.
                - Nature Magazine

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 27, 2008

© 2008 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.