I know. This isn’t a sweet pea. There are only so many ways I can think of to take pictures of emerging sweet pea vines, so I’m showing you one of the things that’s happening in the woods part of the garden: the buckeyes (Aesculus californica) are leafing out. The first leaves to come and the first to go. The beautiful buckeyes are somewhat poisonous, and used to be used for stunning fish (not to impress them; to catch and eat them).
Sweet Peas: what kinds are good and where to get them
The other trick for sweet peas in hot-summer climates is to choose older varieties more closely related to the original Italian wildflower which was brought back to Northern Europe and became the rage (especially in England, where sweet peas seem to be almost a religion. Read an English seed catalogue and you’ll be amazed at the huge number of sweet peas offered. Unfortunately, there are very few places in North America where they will grow easily, since they like cool summers).
These older varieties don’t have the beautiful big flowers of those glorious English hybrids, but they are beautiful, they actually bloom—and they have a stronger fragrance than the later hybrids, which is a good thing in a sweet pea.
Cupani , which I think is the same sweet pea called Matucana, is supposed to be the (or an) original wild form. Or else it’s closely related to an original wild form—these things get lost in the mists of time, and I’m not sure which of the various stories is the straight one. Supposedly, a Father Cupani brought this sweet pea from Sicily to England in the late 1600s, falling in with the tradition that combines gardening with Christian holy orders. (It was, after all, the convents and monasteries that preserved many of the Mediterranean medicinal plants.) Anyway, you can tell by looking at Cupani/Matucana that its small, brilliant blooms were never hybridized by any ambitious grower. They are violet-purple and red-purple, keep going in the heat, and smell like a sensuous heaven—more Islamic paradise than anything in Christendom.
Pink Lady is a medium rose pink sweet pea with a white lip, also supposed to be a near-wild variety. Old Spice is a mix of several of these older varieties, giving you a range of colors and sweet scent. A newer, but still vintage, hybrid mix, Royal Family, lays claim to being heat-resistant, and my experience is that that ‘s true—but they are less hardy in the heat than the other antique kinds.
Royal Family does have the larger flowers most people associate with sweet peas, though, and the colors are varied and beautiful.You may read about perennial sweet peas in some garden catalogues. Usually these are accompanied by photos of these flowers in various colors, which means you’ve entered the land of deception in two ways.
Perennial sweet peas are considered a weed in my area, so I know them well. First off, they aren’t sweet: they have no scent whatever.And while I think they’re quite pretty, especially for a no-care flower, their blooms are mostly bright purple-pink, with a few sports to white and, occasionally, white with a pale pink blush.
A friend of mine once took me to an abandoned orchard which was covered with wild sweet pea vines, and it was a beautiful sight: they were clambering all over the old plum and pear trees, spilling over the ground in thigh-high mounds, in each of the three colors. It was the first time I’d seen the rare blushed-pink version, and I gathered seeds, thinking I’d grow them in my low-water garden, more delicate and subtle than the bright pink-purple.
Alas when I got the seeds in the ground and they came up, they reverted to the purple-pink form, so clearly they aren’t true from seed and what you get is the luck of the draw. Perennial sweet peas are still quite pretty and don’t require water when established (though they may be lusher if you give them some). They stand heat, blooming well into summer. But blossoms picked fade and turn a bruised blue within the hour in the vase, and the flower form is a good deal less delicate than the annual sweet peas. Use perennial sweet peas as a low-water low-maintenance groundcover (they spread but are easy to remove), but don’t expect the heavenly smells and sights of the true sweet pea.
If you want older sweet pea varieties, you can find them at:
Renee’s Garden seeds—available through your local dealer for instant shipping-free gratification, or at: www.reneesgarden.com
Perennial sweet peas can be found at:
more on locating sweet peas: If you have a cooler climate, you’ll be delighted at the selection that Thompson & Morgan has in their catalogue (some are also available through Select Seeds and Renee’s Garden, and I’m sure many British seed companies). I know good gardeners in my area who plant them and come up with fistfuls of good blooms. Maybe I should interview one of them and report back.