Everybody loves sweet peas! They are quintessentially English, and the fragrance has been emulated in countless perfumes, even in Fleur de Male, a men’s fragrance by John Paul Gaultier. I love it!
I was extremely honoured to visit Seedlynx in Essex recently. Often described as a “living library of sweet peas”, as they trial new varieties from all around the world, and maintain stock seed and the quality of many vintage and much-loved varieties. I was shown around by the new owner of the company, Phil, who is also President of the National Sweet Pea Society. His knowledge on sweet peas is extensive, and he even plays around with some breeding at home.
Not many people know that the first Sweet Peas were actually found growing wild on the island of Sicily in Italy. Originally sent to the UK by monks, this original Cupani species is still well regarded, and often preferred over its bigger brother Matucana. The fragrance is clear and fresh, and plants vigorous and multi blooming. However, it’s quite unbelievable to imagine how the breeding can have gone from the small bicolour blooms to the big blousy ones that we see in modern times.
Seedlynx harvest hundreds of kilos of seeds each year, some is harvested in the UK, but the majority of Sweet Pea seed pods crack open on the sunny island of Malta. Phil and the team have a network of home garden breeders across the UK too, trialling their varieties in the heart of Essex when ready. The team also re-select older varieties to ensure they remain good quality and true to type, so ‘what you sow is what you get’.
A few stand-out varieties in the trials this season were:
Tutti Frutti – this variety doesn’t actually have any tendrils, which means they may need a little support to climb. However, the stems will be nice and straight, as there won’t be any tendrils clasping the stem, causing a bend! Clever huh!
Just Julia – a variety recognised for its weather tolerance, and clear blue flowers, exhibition quality.
Almost Black – a Sweet Pea like no other! I have always been fascinated by black blooms, although I’m told ‘Charlie’ is darker.. I’ll have to hunt it down!
Crown Princess of Prussia – one of oldest, 1867, smaller but more blooms. This diminutive size is actually very beneficial, because you get more blooms overall!
Blue Vein – this is a very distinctive variety bred in New Zealand by Dr Keith Hammett. The seed is always in short supply however, and it could end up being the world’s first sweet pea raised by cuttings!
Route 66 – a standout variety, with the most striking colour combination, made even more fanciful by the ruffled petals!
Lisa Marie – now THIS is a ripple variety, strong and vibrant! I’d absolutely grow this!
Turquoise Lagoon – amazingly, this Sweet Pea is actually a random off-shoot, which arose during a programme designed to raise the perfect yellow! The genes obviously jumped around a bit, and these types are now known as “colour shifters”, as the blooms age through a kaleidoscope of thrilling colours!
Solway Series – not all sweet peas are tall, you know! These are the perfect waist-height varieties, and are excellent for growing on the patio, or even as a border plant.
Prince of Orange – a classic variety and, to some minds, still regarded as the very best orange!
Judith Wilkinson – talk about PVC pink! This high resolution beauty is vibrant and cheerful.
And what’s next??
I also got a sneak peak at some of the breeding that’s coming next! There’s also a nice black and white striped variety coming, as well as many colour shifting and blue varieties.
Tips for the best Sweet Peas
When growing sweet peas, it is all about nutrients and moisture. Never grow in a shallow container, use a container at least 18 inches deep, and with a good volume of compost. This means that you can keep them moist at all times, and incorporate some organic matter. Feed them regularly through the season too, set yourself a timer to remind you!
For growing in the ground, mix in some fresh compost or organic matter when plantings, and mulch around the plants to keep the moisture locked in. Keep a good watering regime as well, especially during drier periods.
In terms of sowing seed, there are two schools of thought. A spring sowing can be done, but it’s often thought that an autumn one can give stronger plants. Sow in the autumn and leave the pots outside in a cold frame or similar, plants will be fully cold hardy. And will burst into growth some spring. Try it for yourself!
Remember you need to “pinch out” your sweet peas at least once, this will transform them from juvenile growth to adult growth. It might sound like a scary prospect to cut the stem out of your plant, but it’s fully advisable and cleared by the experts!
During the flowering season, make sure to enjoy plenty of blooms indoors too. The more blooms you cut from your plants, the more your plants will produce for you! The moment you see any seedpods forming, nip them off! (Although later in the season, you may want to leave them so you can harvest your own seed, of course)
You can find out more about sweet peas by visiting the website of the National Sweet Pea Society. They’ve also got a virtual garden show running from 1st to 2nd August 2020, register by the end of June and submit any photos by the end of July. Why not give them a look and indulge yourself in their blousy blooms? If only we had smelly-vision!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.