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Sweet peas are fragrance of spring

November 21, 2009
D.F. Braun

An old gardening friend tells a story of teaching years ago in a new school. The facilities were modern and convenient. Unfortunately, there had been no funds left for landscaping so her large classroom windows looked out on a moonscape of cement and building debris as well as a temporary fence of scrap wood.

By November her inner gardener emerged and in frustration she gathered as many sweet pea seeds as possible and brought them to class. Each student was given a handful of "ugly black seeds" and, following their teacher to the fence, the third-graders threw them into a trench she had dug. She didn't tell them what they were, but later in the day she had them write a sentence about what they guessed they might be. She remembered two of them. One child wrote, "I just hope they're not brussels sprouts." But her favorite was from a boy who wrote, "I hope they are magical beanstalks so we can all climb to an enchanted land."

After Easter break, the vines were maturing and the flowers began to cast their color and fragrance. For Mother's Day each child was able to take home a lovely bouquet for a gift. By June the fence was completely covered. Late in July my friend returned to school to harvest an abundance of seeds for the next spring.

Years later she met one of the students from that class who told her that sweet peas have always held the fragrance of spring for her and she will always remember the ugly fence hidden by the lovely flowers.

Sweet peas are, not surprisingly, members of the pea family; their botanical name is Greek for "pea," Lathyrus odoratus - or fragrant pea. Most peas are edible, but sweet peas are poisonous, and there is even a medical term, lathyrism, to describe the serious consequence of ingesting them.

Sweet peas, so called for their sweet scent, are late-comers to our gardens. They were discovered by a Franciscan monk in Sicily, who wrote a description of them in "Horus Catholicus," which was published in 1697.

In 1699, he sent seeds to Robert Uvedale, the headmaster of Endfield Grammar school in the United Kingdom. Uvedale was a "curious and methodical botanist" and was one of the earliest hothouse owners in Britain. (He was also the happy owner of a myrtle tree "cut in the shape of a chair.") He first raised sweet peas in his hothouse, but then found them to be hardy outside.

The original blooms, though fragrant, were small and purple. They were painted by Pierre Joseph Redoute, and Thomas Jefferson planted them in an oval bed at Monticello. Still, the flowers didn't become popular until the mid-19th century, when they were "improved."

From the five varieties originally available, there are now 264 varieties. When cottage gardens and sweetly scented flowers became the rage, the sweet pea began to enjoy acclaim.

Given our mild winters sweet peas can be sown from November to January. Dig a narrow trench 12- to 18-inches deep to make a rounded seedbed.

For faster sprouting the seeds may be soaked or wrapped in wet paper toweling overnight. Remember the vines should be supported on a trellis or fence. Fertilize monthly to keep plants flowering. The trick to keep the vines producing their fragrant blooms until July is to cut often to keep pods from forming. When the inevitable last flowers are gone, be patient about removing the plants too soon. Allow the pods to mature so you can save the seeds for next year.

Lacking a fence or lean-to device, you might consider a dwarf variety. The plants form a bush about 2 feet tall and can offer color and fragrance along a path or border. All directions for planting and fertilizing are the same as for the vine sweet peas. Remember to dry and save the seeds for the next year.

As for the fragrance, one wonders -is there any way to preserve the smell? Is there a sweet pea cologne, powder, soap or candle that can equal that wonderful natural fragrance?

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