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Sweet Peas that Beat the Heat: Lathyrus odoratus ‘Zinfandel’ and ‘Cupani’

‘Zinfandel’ looks more like ‘grape’ to me

I was letting my sweet pea vines grow out so I could collect seed. As all seed-collectors know, this means you have ratty drying vines for a while.

But then something miraculous happened.

My sweet peas started flowering again.

I don’t live in those wonderful cool-summer climes where you can have sweet peas all summer, or so I thought. This year, for the first time, I may have sweet peas spring, summer, and fall.

What brought this on?

Part of it I have to lay up to compost tea, which I’m using for the first time this year in my garden. I have to say I’m a fan; my other flowering plants are sitting up and flowering robustly, at a time of year when they usually get a little pale and droopy.

But the varieties of sweet pea have a lot to do with it, too; ‘Zinfandel’ and ‘Cupani’ have special talents for lasting out the summer.

In case you’re not familiar with them, here’s a little description.

Unless your zinfandel comes in a bottle with a plastic screwtop and a long list of artificial colors on the label, it won’t match the hue of ‘Zinfandel’ sweet peas.

I suppose ‘Grape Juice’ is just not as marketable a name, although it’s a much better indicator of the color, a straight-on Concord purple. At least that’s what they look like in my garden.

The developing buds have a two-tone look, with a grapey center.

Maybe the name ‘Zinfandel’ was inspired by the yes, slightly winy, attractively deeper note to that high-arching intoxicating sweet pea scent. These flowers may not have matched my expectations colorwise – I put them in a container with ‘Falling in Love’ poppies , expecting an exuberant shades-of-red experience. But they have exceeded my expectations for fragrance – which is indeed deep and almost winey. And they are gorgeous.

Some of them have white on their keels, others are the deep, solid, violet-purple all through. They scent the house beautifully without being overpowering (to me, anyway). And in the garden, they didn’t look bad against the ‘Falling in Love’ poppies, either. (I like it when the garden offers me a color combination I wouldn’t have thought of by myself.)

I’ve even had a branch of them sport to fuchsia flowers, not a favorite color of mine in a sweet pea, but still an interesting variation with, appropriately, a slightly more upper-note scent than the dark purple ones.

The most remarkable thing about ‘Zinfandel’ sweet pea, though, is its heat resistance. We’re among the folks who have had a cooler year than usual, this year, with rains into June and mild temperatures (in the eighties F/high twenties C) into July.

So at first I ascribed “Zinfandel’s’ long-lasting blooms to the weather.

Now it’s August, we’ve had plenty of days in the nineties F (over 32 degrees C), and ‘Zinfandel’ is still blooming away.

But it’s not compost tea alone that’s creating the ‘Zinfandel’ miracle. I planted ‘Cupani’ sweet pea side-by-side with ‘Zinfandel’. ‘Cupani’ has been, for decades, one of the two reliably heat-tolerant sweet peas that actually flower here before they croak. (You can read about the other one, ‘Painted Lady’, here.)

Two-tone heirloom ‘Cupani’

There’s good reason for that. ‘Cupani’ is one of the original wild sweet peas, brought into the garden from the Italian roadside by a Sicilian monk, Francesco Cupani, who sent them to a friend in England, thereby starting a mania which has never quite subsided in that country.

Originally, the Latin name of ‘Cupani’ was Lathyrus distoplatyphyllos, hirsutis, mollis, magno et peramoeno, flore odoratissimo, purpureo. We can thank the efforts of Linnaeus for the shorter version.

Since, like Brother Cupani, I collect seed, I let my sweet pea vines live on to the bitter end, dry leaves and everything.

Usually when you do this, flower production stops: as most gardeners know, sweet peas are one of those flowers that really really need picking (or deadheading) to keep blooming.

I never bothered much with this before, because the hot weather called an end to sweet pea season long before it was an issue.

But this year is different. In searing late August, ‘Cupani’ has a gradually come back and has a fairly respectable scattering of blooms. ‘Zinfandel’ is even more abundantly blooming (in a relative sense); it keeps producing beautifuly-formed, modestly pickable amounts of sweet peas.

‘Cupani’ close up

Cupani, like many heirloom sweet peas, is not as large or as ruffled as the commercial ones grown today. But its two-tone blossoms are a respectable size (I do think the compost tea helps here), and have a beautiful straight-on honey scent.

You can get ‘Zinfandel’ at Renee’s Garden – or whatever gardening center in your area sells Renee’s Seeds. As the writeup claims that ‘Zinfandel’ is exclusive to Renee’s, you may not be able to get them anywhere else. The link I’m giving takes you to their entire sweet pea selection, which will not be a problem for the true sweet pea devotee.

‘Cupani’ is available some years through J.L. Hudson , and reliably, in plant or seed form, from Select Seeds , and other purveyors of heirloom flowers.

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • catmint August 31, 2011, 3:36 am

    Hi pomona, gorgeous colours of s.p.’s

  • Sydney Harrod September 1, 2011, 2:34 pm

    You are just in time to be first to enter our new season photo competition – some of your superb photos would be most welcome.
    PS the prizes are now payable in any PayPal currency.

  • Sydney Harrod September 2, 2011, 4:36 am

    My editor asks where in the USA are you located.
    She may be looking for new writers, or just interested in how hot your summers get.

  • sweetgumpods February 2, 2012, 11:11 am

    Where can I get the following?

    Single & Double wild buttercups
    Sweeet pea plants – including Zinfandel
    Dutchman’s Britches

    I have of Wild Bluebells

  • Mary March 16, 2014, 7:21 pm

    Hello, I am wondering if you still grow black pearl blackberries? I would like to try them but they have disappeared. Would love to buy some starts from you. About the only think I have that to trade would be Marshall strawberries. I live in Vancouver, WA. Thank you, mary dancermm@comcast.net

  • Susan M. Erner, M.D. June 4, 2014, 10:10 am

    Please send catalog(s) if available to:5840 New England Woods Drive, Burke VA 22015

  • ChristieQufi March 2, 2017, 6:50 pm

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  • Patrick April 9, 2017, 1:23 pm

    Compost tea kept my sweet peas blooming all summer in Iowa

  • Ellen Kamienowski July 17, 2017, 3:56 am

    After much coaxing I finally was able to bring sweet pea seeds from Belgium to Split, Croatia to sprouting. Then we left for 3 months. Upon our return last week , everything is dry but there were signs of bloom. Should I cut back dry vines?

  • Catherine July 24, 2017, 4:31 am

    Ellen, I’m a Canadian expat living in Split and just came across your comment. I was thinking for next year, along with some Hollyhock. Do you think it’s worth getting some seeds to try here?

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