The 'original' Sweet Pea, Cupani was first cultivated by a Sicilian monk, Father Francis Cupani, who found this intensely scented wild sweet pea growing near his monastery in 1695.
Francisco Cupani was charged with the care of the botanical garden located in Misilmeri, which is about 15 km or 9 miles from Palermo the capital of Sicily. It is believed that the botanical garden he worked on was attached to the monastery, though it is not ascertainable if the sweet pea plant he recorded was actually grown in the garden or if it was found wild in the surrounding countryside.
Francisco Cupani, recorded the sweet pea as being a new plant in Sicily. This is important as Cupani who was a member of the order of St. Francis in Sicily recorded it in writing, though some say, he may not have been a monk as it has been traditionally believed.
Before Linnaeus simplified plant nomenclature, Francisco Cupani, published in the 1696 a written description of the sweet pea plant. He named the plant 'Lathyrus distoplatyphylos, hirsutus, mollis, magno et peramoeno, flare odoro'.
In 1699, he sent some seeds to a teacher in England and so ‘Cupani’ was the first recorded Sweet Pea to be cultivated. The beautiful deep purple-blue & violet bi-coloured blooms are heavily aromatic and most of the stems bear around three to four flowers.
Though the blooms are smaller than modern hybrids ‘Cupani’ retains the original fabulous fragrance loved by Father Francis. No other sweet peas are this fragrant and it is to this day still sought after.
Sweet peas seeds can be sown indoors in late autumn to early winter into rootrainers or long thin pots. They can also be sown indoors in spring, March to April. Plant out in April to May. Sweet pea seeds can also be sown directly where they are to flower in spring.
If you have a reliable source of John Innes seed compost, or for spring sowing John Innes No 1 potting compost, these will be eminently satisfactory for sweet peas. J.I. Nos 2 & 3 are too strong for sweet peas and should be avoided.
Germination of sweet pea seed is often quicker and more uniform if the seeds are soaked in water for 24 hours prior to sowing. This also enables you to identify any seeds with hard coats, which fail to swell during this period. These should have the seed coat nicked with a small file to enable them to take up water.
Flower production is usually around two to three months from planting out.
Push two well spaced seeds about 2.5cm (1in) below the compost surface. When roots fill rootrainers, pot on two seedlings into a two litre pot. A temperature of 18 to 20°C (65 to 68°F) will give rapid, even germination. As soon as the seedlings have emerged, they need to be grown as cool, and with as much light, as possible.
Pinch out the tips when plants have three or four pairs of leaves. Over-winter undercover in a light, cool place.
Plant out - two plants to a vertical in a mild spell in March. Tie them in every week to encourage straight stems.
Sweet peas can also be sown direct into the open ground where they are to flower. The best time for this is mid March to early April, depending on the weather and the locality. Sow 5 to 8cm (2 to 3in) apart, about 3 to 5cm (1 to 2in) deep. Thin the resulting plants to an average of 15 to 20cm (6 to 8in) apart. Slugs and mice can be a real problem on a direct sown crop, so take suitable precautions before you sow.
Sites for Sweet Peas:
Choose an open site which gets plenty of direct sunlight, but which has some shelter from the worst winds. Avoid planting close to an established hedge or where there will be competition from tree roots.
Young seedlings can be prone to disease if over watered, but once the crop is in full growth, a copious supply of water is needed. A well prepared site will pay dividends by having considerable reserves of available moisture. It is essential to encourage a strong root system if high quality flowers are to be achieved.
Balanced fertilisers are safest, particularly tomato feed. Never apply heavy dressings of fertiliser to weakly growing plants - invalids need gentle coaxing back to health. Foliar feeding can be useful for plants with root problems, but frequent sprays of very dilute fertiliser will be needed to have a significant effect.
Flowering: Autumn sown in late May. Spring sown in early summer. Keep picking as often as you can. Vase life: four to five days
The genus name Lathyrus is taken from the Greek lathyros, an old name for 'pea'
The species name odorata means 'fragrant' or 'sweet-smelling'.
Sweet peas are in the in the family Fabaceae, the legume family.
This term 'Old-fashioned' is applied as a synonym for the 'Grandiflora' varieties, but it is also used at times to include the 'Cupani' variety and the very first varieties of sweet peas that were grown before introduction of the 'Grandiflora' line.
Lathyrus odoratus, is believed to be native to the eastern Mediterranean region from Sicily east to Crete.
Many places have been suggested as being the home of the original sweet pea stock, among these the Italian island of Sicily, the island of Malta, China and Sri Lanka may be mentioned.
One of these places is believed to be the home of the wild sweet pea from which all the cultivated varieties have been produced. Though it is not known exactly in which of these places the sweet pea originated, one historical aspect concerning the sweet pea is agreed on by most people. It is known that Francisco Cupani, recorded the sweet pea as being a new plant in Sicily way back in 1696.
Grandiflora Sweet Peas:
Grandiflora sweet peas represents the first major improvements in the sweet pea strain. The development of varieties with larger flowers and an aesthetically improved placement of the petals on the stem, with standards borne at a greater vertical angle and with the wings held more evenly made for much better display plants.
Compared to the wild or original sweet pea varieties, the Grandifloras usually have clearer colours on the petals and tend to bear more flowers on the stem. The original sweet pea plants were selections derived from the first sweet pea introduced in Sicily and do not match up to the grandifloras in any of the characters desired by gardeners and floral enthusiasts. In comparison to the wild sweet pea, the Grandifloras are more fragrant. Grandifloras were developed over a period of time by different persons; the variety was mainly developed by Henry Eckford in Britain.
Henry Eckford (1823-1905), a nurseryman of Scottish descent, cross-bred and developed the sweet pea, turning it from a rather insignificant, if sweetly scented flower, into the floral sensation of the late Victorian era.
Eckford was singularly responsible for bringing out a succession of Grandiflora sweet peas till the last years of the century, these varieties were called Grandiflora, because the flowers on them were noticeably larger than flowers usually seen on the original Cupani variety.
His initial success and recognition came while serving as head gardener for the Earl of Radnor, raising new cultivars of pelargoniums and dahlias. In 1870 he went to work for one Dr. Sankey of Sandywell near Gloucester. A member of the Royal Horticultural Society, he was awarded a First Class Certificate (the top award) in 1882 for introducing the sweet pea cultivar 'Bronze Prince', marking the start of association with the flower.
In 1888 he set up his development and trial fields for sweet peas in the Shropshire market town of Wem. By 1901, he had introduced a total of 115 cultivars, out of total 264 cultivars grown at the time. Eckford was presented with the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour for his work. He died in 1906 but his work was continued, for a time at least, by his son John Eckford.
More recently, the association between the sweet pea, the Eckfords and Wem has been highlighted again. In the late 1980s, the Sweet Pea Society of Wem started an annual Sweet Pea show and the town has again taken the flower to its heart. Many of the street signs now carry a sweet pea motif and an area of the town is known as Eckford Park.
The Eckford Sweet Pea Society of Wem, named after Henry Eckford. is dedicated to the conservation and promotion of the Eckford varieties. In Victorian times, the town was known as "Wem, where the sweet peas grow".
Val Good who has been involved in the The Eckford Sweet Pea Society of Wem since it was founded in 1988, has been recently been appointed MBE for services to gardening.
The Wem Sweet Pea Show is held in Wem, north Shropshire, each year in July. For details, send an s.a.e. to the Membership Secretary, Lyndale Nook Farm, Weston-under-Redcastle, Nr. Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY4 5LP.
- Additional Information
Seed Form Natural. Open pollinated. Seeds per gram 14 seeds / gram Family Leguminosae Genus Lathyrus Species odoratus Cultivar Cupani Synonym 'Grandiflora' or 'Old Fashioned' Sweet Pea Common Name Heritage / Heirloom Sweet Pea Other Common Names Sweetpea Hardiness Hardy Annual Flowers Deep purple-blue & violet bi-coloured blooms Natural Flower Time June through September Height 200 to 250cm (6 to 8ft) Spread 30cm (12in) Position Full sun needed for best flowering Time to Sow Sow in autumn or in spring