The early history of sweet peas is shrouded in mystery, they may have originated in Italy, or perhaps Malta where they still grow in the wild. In any case, those first sweet peas were insignificant plants, with small, weak stemmed flowers which were poor in colour.
In cultivation gardeners selected varieties in a wider range of colours with longer stems, larger flowers and more flowers per stem. They became known as Grandiflora types, and two of the original ones were painted by the famous French botanical artist, Redoute.
In 1901 a new type was developed in the gardens of Althorp Park in England. The flower was much more attractive, with a larger, frilly standard, bigger wings and a more open keel. It was named ‘Countess Spencer’ after Princess Diana’s grandmother, and it was from this type that all the modern kinds were derived.
Common name: Sweet pea
Botanic name: Lathyrus odoratus
Flowering annual with fragrant perfume. Colours range from white, blue, lavender, purple and pink through to red. Sweet peas usually grow about 1.5-2.0m (4-6′) tall, but there are many different kinds available, including dwarf cultivars.
Best climate: All areas are suitable for growing sweet peas. Try them as a winter flower in warm climates, and a spring or early summer flower in cold or mountain districts.
excellent cut flower winter flower display fragrant garden good for covering a trellis or screen dwarf types great for pots or hanging baskets
beautiful perfume attractive flowers in a wide range of colours
February, March and April are the best months to plant sweet peas in all Australian climates. Or just follow the Australian tradition and sow your seeds on St. Patrick’s Day (17 March). Sweet peas need plenty of sun (at least six hours per day) and good drainage to grow well. Provide a trellis, wire netting or stakes for them to climb, and Peter Valder suggests you don’t use too much fertilizer (particularly high nitrogen fertilizer) or the plants will produce lush green leaves, but very few flowers. Prolong the display by removing spent flowers.
Seed packets are available at your local nursery or garden centre from late summer. Seedlings are available from mid autumn. Yates offers a wide variety of sweet pea seeds, including some of the old-fashioned strains with full scent. Prices range from $1.60-$2.60 a packet.