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When the Sweet Pea Was a Big Deal

We all know the sweet pea is an old-fashioned flower, still loved by many.

The first sweet pea arrived in England in 1699.

At the start of the twentieth century it was a most important flower to include in the garden.

Brent Elliott writes about sweet peas in his book Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower.

He says, “Throughout the Edwardian period [1901-1910] sweet peas created more enthusiasm than any other garden flowers.”

It’s hard to believe that one flower can create such a sensation.

How often have you had that desire to buy a flower that you knew you just had to have?

That enthusiasm is not uncommon among gardeners.

Garden Industry Helps to Popularize Plants

Sweet peas became the craze in gardening by the1890s.  The English, who called this flower the “Queen of Annuals,” had by the 1890s provided the gardening world many wonderful varieties.

Silas Cole, the Earl of Spencer’s head gardener, changed the sweet pea world forever.

Cole introduced a bigger and brighter sweet pea, a flower gardeners everywhere coveted.  The Spencer variety, as it is still called today (above ‘Giant Spencer’ variety), remains available through many seed catalogs.

W. Atlee Burpee, owner of the Philadelphia seed company, recognized that the sweet pea mania was also impacting the American gardener,

The Spencer sweet pea came to America through Burpee who wanted to see how it would grow. 

 Burpee had begun a new trial garden called Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California, where he sent the sweet pea for testing.

An improved sweet pea followed, and soon the English presented the only award for a sweet pea grower based outside of England to Burpee. 

A sweet pea craze swept America, thanks largely to Burpee, who became vice president of England’s National Sweet Pea Society.

James Vick

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) included sweet pea seeds in his catalog.

Here is an illustration from his magazine (below).

Vick’s Illustratated Monthly 1882

In his 1874 seed catalog Vick referred to this flower as ‘Flowering Pea’. He offered eleven varieties.

He saw them as essential for the flower garden.

He wrote, “Sweet peas should be planted in every garden.”

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