By Jill Severn
This week, I escaped the worry of omicron by dreaming of sweet peas. It was also a very useful strategy for seeing past the gray, cold skies.
Sweet peas, in case you forgot or never knew, smell of heaven. There’s no better way to wake up in the morning than walking into a room with a fresh bouquet on the breakfast table. It is a wonderful thing to look forward to.
We have to thank a Scottish gardener and breeder for our sweet peas. According to our friends at Wikipedia, “Henry Eckford (1823 – 1905) crossed and developed the sweet pea, transforming it from a rather insignificant although lightly scented flower to a 19th century floral sensation.” He did so “as the head gardener of the Earl of Radnor”. He received the Royal Horticulture Society Victoria Medal of Honor for his work.
He did it in a town called Wem in Shropshire. Since a resurgence in sweet pea popularity in the 1980s, his Sweet Pea Society has put on an annual show, and Wem’s road signs feature a sweet pea motif.
The fact that there is a sweet pea society is a remarkable feature of the human species. I dream of a world where more people are members of Sweet Pea Societies than the Proud Boys or Antifa.
Sweet peas are easy to grow once the seeds sprout. They want to be planted in a sunny location in March or April, and they should be planted by someone who is in no rush to germinate them and is ready to replant if they fail the first time around. Their occasional reluctance to germinate is the only character flaw in sweet peas; this has earned them a reputation for being picky which they don’t deserve.
Like most edible pea varieties, sweet peas need something to climb on – something they can wrap their little tendrils around. A bird net threaded over a frame is ideal. (Mine push my neighbor’s ugly chain link fence, effectively hiding it for most of the summer.)
Sweet peas like sunny places, but if it’s really hot, they’ll appreciate afternoon shade. However, last year the mine survived the heatwave of June and flowered until early October – a much longer period than their typical extinction in August. Like the peas we eat, sweet peas are generally averse to midsummer heat, so their behavior came as a pleasant surprise.
But don’t eat sweet peas. If your child eats a few, don’t worry, but too much over a period of time will disrupt your body’s ability to make collagen, which will cause your skin to sag. (However, living long will do the same.)
In my experience, the lighter colors of sweet peas are the most fragrant, although no garden reference I’ve read says so. Old varieties are generally more fragrant than new ones, which are bred for longer stems and larger flowers in favor of flower arrangers. There are also dwarf varieties that grow vines shorter than the typical sweet pea height of five to eight feet. (In 1981 in Harare, Zimbabwe, I saw a plantation in full bloom that was twelve feet tall – a sure sign that the British colonizers had been there, perhaps with their head gardeners.)
If you want to search online, you can find many varieties; if you don’t, you can find a greater variety of seeds in a nursery than at the grocery store in early spring. A hint: multifloras have smaller, more fragrant flowers than grandifloras. There is no law against mixing them together and planting both.
So here is my wish for your vacation: When all the grown-ups are warm in our beds, visions of sweet peas dance in our heads.