Doubling Down

Sometimes plant hybridizers go for broke.  They’re going to do everything, the color, the size, the heat resistance, the double blooms.  In the mad race to twirl around those chromosomes faster than you can say Watson and Crick and select for the most spectacular hybrids, something gets spun off.

That something in the case of the Sweet Pea was scent.  For a large part of the twentieth century the Sweet Pea was a forgotten flower and when grown, it was grown for flower shows, primarily in the UK.

This was a minor tragedy of the commons.  None of the hybridizers meant to forego scent, but those flower showing gardeners wanted bigger and better blooms, basically the mid-century mantra had permeated the hybridizers’ plant growing world and on every day, in every way, the blossoms were getting better and better.

No one wanted the Sweet Pea’s perfume to go, but it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to save either, and so the sweet pea scent almost disappeared in favor of bigger, brighter, rufflier blooms.  Only in the last decade or two have growers backed away from this visually splendid but olfactorily impoverished state of affairs.

This is  seriously good news for the Sweet Pea.  Now I know they’re not trendy flowers.  They are as relentlessly Victorian as anyone Lytton Strachey ever vilified, but they are still a scent experience.  There is nothing quite like their perfume which is full and sweet but not in the least indolic.  It is an innocent fragrance, and deserves its associations with childhood and gardens that are really not much better than vegetable patches.

I grew a collection of old fashioned varieties that I got from Thompson and Morgan back in Vermont.  The cool temperatures suited the Sweet Peas and I had a tangle of sweetly sentimental blooms in shades of periwinkle, rose and lilac as softly pastel as a baby’s layette.  There were no drawbacks except that you had to keep cutting the flowers or they would go into early retirement.  I remember them fondly and would grow them again but for my daughter’s concern that in the process I should accidentally poison Charcoal the cat.  I myself think this concern overblown, but Charcoal did eat my heliotrope last year and nearly expired from the gas it gave her, so perhaps my daughter is right to be cautious.

There is no perfume that captures the smell of Sweet peas properly.   Sorry.  Yes I know that Si Lolita(Lolita Lempicka) , Floret( Antonia Bellanca) and Pois de Senteur (Caron) all claim to epitomize the note, but nothing doing.  Of the three, currently, if my back were against the wall, I’d say choose the Lempicka but I don’t care for the strong synthetic background on that one.

Here instead are some suggestions for the garden that really will, incontrovertibly, smell of Sweet Peas:

Antique Fantasy Mixed (I grew this)

Painted Lady ( I also grew this one, small flowers good scent)

Heirloom Mixed ( I tried this and had good results)

Bicolour Mixed

Hi Scent

Fragrant for Cutting (a mixed bag)

Sweet dreams

Fragrantissima Thompson and Morgan all varieties, but you could try Park Seed

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2 Responses to Doubling Down

  1. Mals says:

    My mother grew sweet peas against the wooden fence at the boundary of our backyard when I was a child – pale pink, sweet as little children’s faces… I’ve not tried to grow any myself.

    There are wild flowers in this area that look very much like sweet peas, a hot pink variety that just spring up on roadsides and vine around all summer, but they are scentless.

    I think I might be saddest that scent has been bred out of carnations – florist carnations used to smell so wonderful, all spicy-green, and now they smell of nothing. That’s another scented flower that I need to start growing, but I may check out the sweet pea varieties you’ve mentioned.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Well, they’re easy, but if you live where it’s hot of a summer, you might want to try early Spring or even Fall sowing. Sweet peas don’t like heat and they’ll bolt like spinach.
      You’re right about carnations. They did smell much more back in the day, and the only flower I can think of that is much like them is Sweet William, but that is much clovier, and less floral.

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