Sweet peas

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



British sweet peas for American gardeners

More Scent': probably the best scented sweet pea of all. Image © Keith Hammett
A month or two back I discussed American varieties of tomatoes that British gardeners can order from across the Atlantic. Time now to return the favor, and point out the British sweet pea specialists who will send sweet pea seed across to gardeners in North America. Many will only send to Europe.

But first, it’s only fair to point out that there are two US-based sweet pea specialists. Sweet Pea Gardens in Maine, who I visited when working on my book on sweet peas, have a good range. Enchanting Sweet Peas in California also specialize in sweet peas. Also, Renee’s Garden in California has listed a good range for many years, along with seed many other fine flowers.

So, I’ve checked all the British mail order sweet pea suppliers and these five specialists will send seed to North America and also have easy online ordering.

Eagle Sweet Peas
Carefully chosen Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including a steady flow of varieties raised by at the nursery.

English Sweet Peas
One of the largest wholesale suppliers of sweet pea seed to retailers, they also have their own online retail site listing a large range of old-fashioned, modern Spencers and dwarf types.

Kings Seeds
Founded in 1888, they list a fine range of varieties although the website is a little clunky and old-fashioned.

Matthewman’s Sweet Peas 'Clementine Kiss': a uniquely orange sweet pea developed by Dave Matthewman. Image © Matthewman's Sweet Peas
Thirteen consecutive Gold Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, focusing on high quality Spencer sweet peas for the garden and showbench – including some excellent varieties that Dave Matthewman has raised himself such as 'Clementine Kiss' (right, click to enlarge).

Owl’s Acre Sweet Peas
I discussed Owl’s Acre in an earlier post and, in particular, their series of dwarf varieties for container. They also list a wide range of old-fashioned types, modern Spencer types and winter-flowering varieties.

A number of other suppliers are worth considering, but do not have online ordering; they need you to download and print an order form and send it in by mail.

Kerton Sweet Peas
Carefully chosen Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including varieties raised by at the nursery.

'Deborah Devonshire': a lovely picotee sweet pea from Myers Sweet Peas. Image © Myers Sweet PeasMyers Sweet Peas
Carefully selected Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including varieties raised by at the nursery including 'Deborah Devonshire' (left, click to enlarge), and some old-fashioned types.

Roger Parsons Sweet Peas
Large range of all kinds from the holder of Britain’s Plant Heritage National Collection of Sweet Peas (and other Lathyrus species)

Somerset Sweet Peas
Carefully chosen Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including a fine selection of exceptional varieties developed by Keith Hammett including 'More Scent' (top, click to enlarge).

So many superb sweet peas, and some excellent, dependable British suppliers. And of course British gardeners can enjoy them too.