Friday, August 19, 2011


"All human life is there." That's what they used to say about the late and unlamented News of the World, perhaps adding that there was some inveterbrate life forms involved too.

Today, all human life seems to be on Twitter. When I tweet - as we Twitterers say - about broad beans or early spuds, I get a moderate response. When I comment on shrubs, there is a deafening silence which suggests either that shrubs have passsed the Twitterati by or that devotees of this particular social network have just become a bit glib about shrubs.

However, when I mention sweet peas, Twitter comes alive. There are tweets about how they remind people of dear, departed grandmothers, about the need to pinch out the side shoots, about the date of the first bloom, but especially about the scent. Sweet peas, I conclude from this quite unscientific observation, are held dear, clasped to the collective bosom of this particular social network.

Sweet peas are, of course, annuals and annuals are mildly bothersome in that you have to sow the damn things every year. And the means preparing a bed. Perennials are a doddle, by and large.

Sweet peas are, contrary to what a lot of people say, quite difficult to grow. They need a rich soil (two bags of well-rotted manure form the foundation for my short row each year), they need something up which they can climb, and ideally they need a bit of pinching and de-shooting here and there in order to encourage suitably stout flower-bearing stems.

They climb by way of tendrils (which I always think of as tentacles) which fasten on to any object which can aid and a abet them in their life of climb, including themselves. The tendrils of a a sweet pea will, in the absence of anything more suitable, cling to the plant itself. Sweet pea is the one plant which can, literally, tie itself up in knots.

If you let your sweet peas just scramble away, obeying the laws of the jungle, they will produce blossoms which, in turn, will provide you with intoxicating scent. But their very short stems will be crooked, the blooms will be small and because they will be hard to pick, the crop will be small. If you want lots of lovely sweeet peas you need not just rich soil and a climbing frame on which they can gambol upwards, but also lots of patience for guidance and the application of string and wire or whatever else you might use in order to keep the plants from contorting themselves into a promiscuous mass of green knots. And, most important of all, you must pick the flowers every day. By denying the plants the opportunity to set seed you encourage more blossom. It's cruel, perhaps, but it works. You must never let your sweet peas sit back and think that their job is done; you must be a slave driver.

The rewards are great. Sweet pea, for me, is the smell of summer. They were not a regular feature of childhood; I suppose my hard-working and frequently ill mother, who loved sweet peas above every plant except roses, found herself unequal to the task most years. But they did appear, perhaps in bunches from my grandmother's garden.

While the scent is what sweet peas are really about, it's not the alpha and the omega. Not quite. The colours are glorious too, ranging from dark reds that are almost black to delicate lilacs and lavenders.

Open a seed catalogue - Unwins is the best in this respect - and observe those colours, those giant flowers, those ultra-hybridised sweet peas which clearly sell well enough to justify all this colour photography. The thing that beats me is how people obviously buy whole packets of one colour, one variety. Can you imagine their gardens?

I expect that these are bought by sweet pea exhibitors, a somewhat perverse bunch who spend all their spare waking hours between Autumn and, golly, late Summer, torturing sweet peas and bending the plants to their iron wills.

I buy one pack of sweet pea seeds every year: mixed colours, ideally an old fashioned blend for superior scent as the bigger, blowsier, more dramatic and more recent sorts are rather deficient in this essential respect. And if I'm organised, I will sow them under cover in October, producing the first blooms the following May. Or, if I am being my usual chaotic self, they will finally get sown in late May and burst into flower in August as the first hint of autumn hovers in the air.

The sweet pea itself originated in the Mediterannean and found its way to these islands thanks to botanical tourists who liked the scent. The early sort, the original Lathyrus odoratus, was grown in England for the first time by a schoolmaster in Essex in 1701 and was described in Henry Phillips' book of 1824, Flora Historica as "the emblem of delicate pleasures". Phillips goes on to say that it had really caught on over the previous century and was now to be found "in every garden, from the palace of the monarch to the cottage of the peasant, where it equally dispenses its fragrant odours, without regarding the rank of its possessor."

This Bolshevik amongst flowers, according to Phillips has a perfume which "although delightful in the open air, is found rather oppressive than reviving when confined to close apartments, and we therefore caution ladies from admitting it into their chambers."

The Victorians were made of sterner stuff and the vastly improved sweet pea hybrids introduced by Henry Eckford, one of the great head gardeners, took them by storm, with ladies wantonly cavorting with them in their boudoirs by the 1890s. These were the so-called grandifloras, bigger, more highly scented and appearing in a much wider range of colours than the earliest kinds.

Then came a mutation in a single grandiflora sweet pea plant which grew in the gardens of Earl Spencer (yes, that Spencer family) in Northamptonshire. The blossom was bigger and the edges of the petals were a little bit frilly. From that plant descended the so-called Spencer varieties which so enthralled the British public that competitive sweet pea growing became somthing of a national obsession.

The old Eckford varieties are still in the best in my book. That Spencer mutation proved, in the end, that bigger and better came at the expense of fragrance. The latest, sometimes monstrous, varieties of sweet pea are quite light on scent and can be admitted to even the chambers of even the most delicate ladies with impunity. Perfume may not be what sweet peas are all about but it's what attracted the attention of gardeners in the first place. And it's what makes me go through the whole rigmarole of growing the damn things every year. (ends)

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