In 1699 an Italian priest who lived in Sicily sent some sweet pea seeds to a friend of his in Enfeld, just north of London, who was a collector of rare plants. In a few years' time sweet peas were being sold in England. At first they were all purple, but in about 1830 there were also scarlet and white ones and one of different colours called the Painted Lady which was very popular.
It was not known until about 1870 that before the flower opens it fertilises itself, which means that the pollen ripens and falls on to the ripe stigma and so the seed is started. By opening a flower of one kind of pea and taking some pollen from it to the stigma of another kind, flower growers have been able to produce varieties in many colours, and also better and stronger plants. The first variety was sold in England in 1882 and was called Bronze Prince. Nowadays sweet peas can be white or all shades of purple, mauve, red and pink, or mixtures of colours, and they can also have wavy or frilly edges. They are among the loveliest flowers in the garden, both because of their shape and because of their scent.
Sweet pea seeds are sown in rows so that branched sticks can be put in beside them for the plants to climb up. They do this by means of tendrils that grow out from the flattened stems and twine round the sticks. The main stems are straggly and rather weak but the flower stalks are strong and generally bear five or six flowers. Gardeners often nip off some of the buds so that only three or four are left and these can have more food and grow into bigger flowers. There are also dwarf (smaller) kinds called Cupid sweet peas that do not climb but grow about six inches high and have little flowers. Sweet peas like a moist, well-drained soil best and a moderately sunny position. They are annuals and they belong to the pea family, Leguminosae.
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