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Everlasting pea: an undervalued garden climber

Lathyrus latifolius 'Rosa Perle', as grown at East lambrook Manor in Somerset many years ago. Image © GardenPhotos.comSometimes, people ignore plants simply because they're common. We see them all the time, even growing by the side of the road, and they sink into our subconscious and simply fail to emerge.

What is sometimes called the perennial sweet pea, or everlasting pea, is a case in point. Lathyrus latifolius is easy to grow, we see patches thriving along sunny roadsides in Britain and in North America, and in gardens it may annoy us as it can be uncomfortably vigorous. But it’s very colourful, very productive, clings to fences or shrubs with its tendrils and is a splendid long lasting cut flower. If it were scented there’d be hundreds of varieties.

It’s been used to control erosion in North America, and its ability to prevent the germination and development of shrubs has led to its planting along utility lines to ensure access remains unblocked by shrubby growth. A variety has even been developed, ‘Lancer’, specifically for practical use. It grows more upright than others, has superior seedling vigor, is a good seed producer and also has a better blend of colours than other mixtures.

In a few parts of the US it’s seen as a noxious weed but, on the other hand, the United States Department of Agriculture provides detailed instructions on how best to sow it and grow it when using it for erosion control etc.

In gardens it can be quite a spectacle, and is lovely clinging to a rustic fence or to a robust old shrub rose (right, click to enlarge). Lathyrus latifolius 'Blushing Bride' with the rose 'Suffolk', also known as 'Bassino'. Image © GardenPhotos.comThere are three basic color forms – magenta, pale pink and white – but, in his book on sweet peas, Roger Parsons lists ten varieties (plus a number of synonyms) although the names are not now applied with much care or precision, especially with regard to flower size. But look for ‘Blushing Bride’ (blushed white), ‘Rosa Perle’ (pink, above - click to enlarge), ‘Red Pearl’ (magenta) and ‘White Pearl’ (white). And if you come across ‘Wendy’s Joy’, with mauve flowers, grow it and pass it round – although dividing the root is the only way to be sure it stays true.

Lathyrus latifolius also makes a long lasting cut flower, with up to a dozen flowers on a spike, and is valuable in itself and also to fill out bunches of scented sweet peas. The challenge is to control the vigor of the beast and encourage it to produce long stems. Training the stems on wires does the trick and tends to create long straight flower stems which are easy to reach for picking.

So next time you notice Lathyrus latifolius flowering by the side of the road (as in Suffolk in eastern England, below, click to enlarge) remember what a fine garden plant it is and look out for the best varieties.

Lathyrus latifolius growing by the roadside in Suffolk, England. Image © GardenPhotos.com


Comments

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Steve Young

Hi Graham,

I'm a big fan of your blog.

I wanted to share my experience with Lathyrus latifolius. I worked with one of the Pearl series of varieties.

It's interesting how some plants are perfectly well-behaved in one garden, and absolute terrors in someone else's garden. Differences in soil type, climate, and oh so many variables contribute to this.

With that said, I'm happy for people who can safely grow Lathyrus latifolius. It's such a wonderful plant and I love the way you've described it. However, for me in my garden (New York, Zone 7a) it's absolutely by far the most horrible monster I've ever grown. It self seeds everywhere and it's incredibly difficult to dig out even small seedlings. In my garden they form these extensive tap roots that are incredibly difficult to fully eradicate.

If you knew how much I truly hate the use of any and all chemicals in the garden, you'd know how horrible this plant must have been for me to actually purchase and try Round-up. Even that didn't work.

Four years after originally planting this plant, I'm still spending a number of hours pulling up seedlings.

So, I"m happy for you that this plant is not a monster in your garden and you can grow it and appreciate it. But, a fair warning that for some, it might be a real terror.

Happy Gardening!
Steve

Graham Rice

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Steve. I'm sorry to hear that everlasting pea is such a problem for you. In our British garden in zone 8 (seen in the picture with the rose), it has not self-seeded at all in nearly fifteen years in spite of growing well - perhaps at least partly because flowers are generally cut for the house and those remaining dead-headed regularly.

Here in north east PA (zone 5) it has grown along roadsides for years and certainly seems very resilient (and attractive) but we don't currently have it in the garden because out here in the woods sunny places are at such a premium and we don't have space for even one plant with that much vigor.

Have you tried Round-Up sprayed on the emerging foliage early in the season? It will also be easier to keep the weedkiller off other plants at that time of year.

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