This year is a centennial of sorts: in 1907, sweet peas were first grown in California’s Central Coast valleys on an agricultural scale. A visitor asked a Lompoc farmer, Robert Rennie, to grow them. The region’s rich soil and benign climate were ideal for growing the flowers; wind and fog from the Pacific Ocean cooled the worst of the summer heat. Rennie planted sweet peas on half an acre of his ranch, which is now part of Lompoc’s town center.
Within two years W Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia set up shop in Lompoc. Sweet peas were one of his principal crops. Some of his seed had been developed by the Reverend Lewis Routzahn in the late 1880s, working at the ranch of his father-in-law, TH McClure. Other seed growers followed soon after.
Although Lompoc came to be known as the sweet pea “capital,” the flowers were also cultivated on a large scale in other California agricultural valleys. As far back as the 1890s, English growers were sending the seeds of their new cultivars to California to be “bulked up.” DM Ferry, from Detroit, had a ranch in Salinas, in Monterey County. CC Morse worked in San Francisco, but grew his seed in Santa Clara County. After 1930, the merged firm of Ferry-Morse Seeds occupied land near San Juan Bautista in San Benito County.
In California the names of Ferry, Morse, and Burpee are the most prominent, but, at one time, many also knew of the Zvolanek family, William and Frank Cuthbertson (who did the crosses for Morse), and Denholm Seeds.
Only ten years after the California sweet pea epoch started, Morse’s son, Lester, published Field Notes on Sweet Peas (1917). The body of this booklet was a catalog of all the varieties and cultivars— English, American, and other nationalities— in existence prior to that date. It is a mine of information.
Anyone driving through the coastal valleys of Central California before about 1980 would have seen field upon field of glorious color at the peak of the sweet pea season. The fields were active for almost a century but now have run their course. Fashions have changed. Gardeners switched from buying packets of seed to buying starter plants, and the cost of growing flowers of any type in California became prohibitive. All of the flowers grown were labor-intensive—sweet peas in particular. In addition, land values escalated rapidly in the face of development pressures.
Growing annuals for seed became more cost effective in Central or South America. By the mid-1980s, the valleys had changed. Sweet peas no longer lord it in Lompoc, but, at one time, many tons of seed were gathered from the fields there.
The cultivated sweet pea, which Linnaeus named Lathyrus odoratus, is native to the Mediterranean region; this may explain its success in California. The modern sweet pea story began in Sicily in the late 1690s. Francisco Cupani, the gardener in a monastery at Misilmeri, sent a specimen of sweet peas to Caspar Commelin, a botanist in the Netherlands, and possibly to Roger Uvedale in England. That original plant was small, with dark blue, purple-hooded flowers and an intense fragrance. It is not known whether the specimen sent to London was wild or cultivated, but it was new to Cupani. Both the recipients recorded the gift, and, in London, a specimen was passed to Leonard Plukenet, Queen Mary’s physician.
Philip Miller also grew it in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Thirty years later, he wrote that another kind had become available—a “pale red” one.1 Little is known about this period, particularly whether new varieties that were appearing were English sports or had also come from Sicily. It is doubtful that anyone had been breeding them intentionally. In 1737, Mason’s, a London seedsman, offered a sweet pea cultivar called ‘Painted Lady’; it was pink and white and distinctly fragrant. Could this have been Miller’s “pale red”?
Sweet Pea Breeding Expands
After about one hundred and fifty years of obscurity, the two known variants of sweet pea in England had increased in number to five. In the late 1870s, a sudden burst of glory erupted, fueled by the award of a first class certificate to James Carter’s cultivar ‘Invincible Scarlet’ at an 1867 Royal Horticultural Society show. No sweet pea had ever won a prize before.2 Carter had begun breeding sweet peas as early as 1837; his firm offered six kinds: white, purple, black, red, striped, and ‘Painted Lady’.
Thomas Laxton, who had established a fine reputation for breeding apples and edible peas, started to work on sweet peas at about the same time as Carter. Laxton’s cultivars (‘Etna’, ‘Madame Carnot’, and ‘Princess May’) were all extremely successful. People began to take notice.
Almost all the plants grown during the years that followed were selections of Lathryus odoratus. This rather modest plant is an unlikely candidate for fantasy and furor, but that is what happened for about forty years, between 1880 and 1920. After that a large number of the flowers were still grown for sale, but the market shifted away from a passion for sweet peas.
Henry Eckford, a professional gardener from Scotland, began breeding sweet peas in 1870, after a successful career breeding pelargoniums, verbenas, and dahlias for the Earl of Radnor. Perhaps he saw the wave of enthusiasm for sweet peas as a way to enhance his career. In 1883, he won a first class certificate at the Royal Horticultural Society’s show for his ‘Bronze Prince’ sweet pea. Five years later, he opened his own nursery in the small Shropshire town of Wem, where his work further transformed the sweet pea. He developed 153 cultivars of which twenty-six remained in commerce as of 1917, according to Lester Morse’s list. Eckford developed the type known as ‘Grandiflora’, with larger flowers than previously seen and a broad range of colors.
The showier ‘Spencer’ type was a sport from one of Eckford’s cultivars, ‘Prima Donna’, selected by Silas Cole, head gardener for the Earl of Spencer at Althorp. Although it lacked fragrance, the sport was so exquisite, with its wavy and frilly petals, that it quickly superseded the ‘Grandiflora’ types. Curiously, an almost identical sport appeared in several other gardens simultaneously, but Cole’s work and the magical name of the Spencer family ensured that his introduction in 1901 received the lion’s share of attention.
Sweet Peas in the United States
Within a few years, there was a large demand for sweet peas from the United States. Soon after opening his business, Eckford started to supply James Breck in Boston with seed. Reverend WT Hutchins, another American enthusiast from Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, drove the demand by his own excitement for the flowers. In 1892, he wrote All About Sweet Peas, the first monograph devoted to the sweet pea.
Independent breeding in the United States, both by selection and deliberate crossing, began early. By 1910, the firm of Morse and Co had 400 acres of sweet peas under cultivation in California. Peter Henderson, in New York, also bred new cultivars, including ‘Emily Henderson’, which gave him a long period of prosperity. The American work was on such a high plane that their introductions soon started to win prizes at the Royal Horticultural Society’s shows. Burpee’s first dwarf sweet pea, ‘Cupid’, won an award of merit in 1893.
At first, the breeding work was mainly on the East Coast. The popular ‘Blanche Ferry’ was introduced in 1889 by Ferry, who had bought the rights to a special sweet pea from a woman in upstate New York. She had saved seeds from her ‘Old Painted Lady’ plants every year, sowing them in the same rocky plot for twenty-five years. In her shallow soils, lacking any natural enrichment, the plants became tougher, shorter, and resistant to disease over successive generations. She had been using a vigorous old cultivar that predated the modern breeding programs, which could be the reason that its descendants in California did so well.
The descendants of ‘Blanche Ferry’ were legion. Some selections blossomed earlier in the season, being a little more resistant to cold and adapted to shorter days. Starting with ‘Early Blanche Ferry’, he gradually ran out of names for these variants. Many experts believed that some of the new “early” cultivars being introduced were only slightly different, with little real distinction between them.
This is not uncommon in the plant-breeding world. Each firm wants the public to believe that it, alone, offers all the diversity that anyone could need, and will pursue a breeding program fated to produce redundancies in the market. To attack the problem of new introductions having little true merit or differentiation among them, the National Sweet Pea Society in the United Kingdom (chartered in 1901) started a list of cultivars that resembled each other so closely that an exhibitor could no longer show both types in the same vase. That rule, from 1905, helped to bring about more sensible breeding. In collaboration with the Royal Horticultural Society and other groups, the society ran trials and graded the new cultivars on a variety of qualities.
Several old-fashioned sweet peas, believed to have come from England, were actually developed in the United States during this period. English gardening was at the height of its prestige, and nurserymen liked to cash in on anything that would give them a marketing edge. They might not have actually claimed that their introductions came from England, but, if the public chose to believe so, they made no strenuous efforts to disabuse them.
The Move to California
WJ Unwin of Histon, near Cambridge, was one of the first English growers to take advantage of California’s idyllic growing conditions. In the five years prior to World War I, more British sweet pea firms set up permanent operations in Central California, begging the question of whether their new introductions were American or not. Later, the dominant players in Lompoc were Bodgers and Denholms, both from the UK. The principals of each Firm were from Britain, and they employed British horticulturists to do the hybridizing.
Uncertain behavior of subsequent sweet pea generations was one of the chief difficulties confronting all breeders. The exquisite ‘Spencer’ type seed did not breed true. A new cultivar might reproduce itself fairly well in a small garden plot, but, when bred on a large scale, many seedlings reverted to the parental forms. These “rogues” had to be eliminated from a field of plants, to assure the purity of the seed to be harvested. The huge fields in California allowed growers to spot rogues promptly and take steps to weed them out. Roguing was costly, as it had to be done by hand, but essential for the integrity of the industry.
Before breeders became aware of this, they sold seed to the public too soon and often had to refund disappointed customers. Among the most important merits of ‘Blanche Ferry’ was the stability of her descendants’ seed, requiring a minimum of roguing.
Initial cultivars bred by Unwin rapidly succeeded because they also stayed true to seed. Unwin, a grocer who dabbled in sweet peas on the side, abandoned his grocery and opened a new business with 1904’s introduction of ‘Gladys Unwin’. This cultivar was one of the sports that had appeared almost simultaneously with Cole’s ‘Spencer’; however, this one always bred true.
According to Roy Genders, ‘Gladys Unwin’ propelled the sweet pea into national prominence.3 While that may be an exaggeration, she certainly took the sweet pea to a new level. One large wholesale house bought every single Unwin seed the year he released ‘Gladys Unwin’. The actual reason for its stability remains unclear.
Unwin sent his foreman, GH Burt, to California in 1910 to supervise the development of his sweet pea crops. The yield from several cultivars that had done poorly in the English summer improved markedly in the reliable climate of California. Transferring the relatively light-weight seed back to England added minimally to the cost of doing business.
In the ten years from 1906 to 1916, Unwin bred eighty-three cultivars, of which forty-three remained in cultivation in 1917, an even better percentage than Eckford’s. A close reading of the Morse list revealed how many cultivars were completely transient, disappearing almost as fast as they were introduced. Failure to breed true was one of the principal reasons, but poor habit, weak growth when challenged on a large scale, susceptibility to the dreaded disease “streak,” and lack of anything truly unique about the cultivar were also important. (Caused by a virus, streak has now become less common.)
Curiously, Unwin’s business story parallels that of W Atlee Burpee, a Pennsylvania poultry breeder who needed seed to feed his chickens. He later switched to horticulture when he discovered that seed selling was more lucrative than raising chickens. Burpee was a shrewd businessman. One of his buyers saw what was going on in California and informed his employer, who had already been thinking about adding land in California to his holdings. He put together several parcels of desirable land, and sent his family to live in a simple house on the property and learn all they could. Upon his death in 1915, his son David was already prepared to take over the business.
William and Frank Cuthbertson, who were Scottish, introduced a series of sweet peas that are still collectively known as ‘Cuthbertsons’. While they have a greater tolerance for heat, their range of color and form is somewhat restricted, and they have not remained particularly popular. One of the Cuthbertson’s protégées, David Lemon, from Ireland, made distinct contributions to the sweet pea, working with those lacking tendrils to produce the ‘Snoopea’ series.
Two other firms are associated with the peak period of Lompoc’s sweet peas: Bodgers and Denholm Seeds. John Bodger was an English nurseryman whose family still owns the business. In 1880, he sent his son William to the United States. Eventually William worked for Theodosia Burr Shepherd in Ventura, a remarkable plantswoman in her own right.
The elder Bodger and an apprentice spent time in California in 1891 and soon called the entire family to come to the West Coast, setting up their nursery grounds in Ventura. After John’s death in 1924, his son bought land in Lompoc to grow more flowers, especially marigolds and sweet peas.
The Denholm story is more recent. Well-trained in England, Scotsman David Denholm emigrated to California, where he worked for Morse and for Bodger before starting his own company in 1939 with two other men, Harry Buckman, a noted figure in Lompoc, and Ted Holden, a graduate in plant sciences and genetics from the University of California at Davis. Denholm Seeds was successful but eventually fell prey to the need for consolidation. It is now part of Ball Flora Seed, as is Burpee.
Morse listed 104 new, mostly British, cultivars appearing in 1915; the number dropped to thirty-six in 1916, due to the loss of gardeners to the war effort in England. A second list, which Morse confined to an appendix, revealed substantial numbers of cultivars introduced by American breeders. In 1916, Anton Zvolanek in California released eighty new cultivars, alone; Burpee offered fourteen; and other breeders issued another 101.
Anton Zvolanek, a nurseryman and skilled sweet pea hybridist from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), immigrated to New Jersey in 1889. After more than 5,000 crosses between his own winter flowering plants and the new ‘Spencer’ type in his greenhouses at Bound Brook, NJ, he came up with the plant he believed would succeed. He decided to have it “bulked up” in Lompoc and, by 1910, he had moved his entire operation to Lompoc, where he lived until 1958.
His son William maintained his father’s high standards and kept the firm going until 1975, when it was sold to Bodgers. In 1947, they released a new multiflowered cultivar, the ‘Early Zvolanek’, with a good strong stem holding five or six flowers each. Eleven years later, they issued four new semi-dwarf, multiflowered cultivars. All of these, and many other Zvolanek cultivars, were widespread in the sweet pea industry, yet both father and son ran the business on a modest scale, supplying tiny orders by hand; a pound of seed was a large order.
Excellent work still goes on in breeding new types of sweet pea, constantly making them easier to cultivate, better for small gardens, resistant to disease, more floriferous, and offering more attractive blossoms. They are no longer as dominant in horticulture as they once were, but there always is the search for a pure yellow flower—a haunting goal as elusive, to date, as the blue rose.
Some nurseries now feature the older cultivars, from the early part of the twentieth century. Almost everything that can be thought of has been done to the sweet pea. The plants have been dwarfed and made taller. The flowers have been enlarged. The tendrils have been removed by genetic manipulation, and a leafless variety has been bred. Many more blossoms are carried on each stem. The hood has disappeared. The plant’s flowering period has been extended, responding to the wide range of climates within the United States; it now can tolerate greater extremes of heat and cold than was previously possible.
Crosses between the usual Lathyrus odoratus and unusual species such as L. nervosus have been attempted without success.4 Searches for wild species to improve the genetic profile continue. Specialists, such as Keith Hammett, prospect around the Mediterranean. In the 1970s, he found the key wild plant in Sicily that is now known as the ‘Original’ or ‘Cupani’s Original’.5
It is sad to write an epitaph of sorts, but the demise in California’s nursery fields noted earlier have taken place in many other sections of the horticultural world. The rows of greenhouses in the Bay Area are gone. The roses they held are now almost entirely grown in Central America. Orchid growing was once spread widely across many countries and continents—and thrived in California—but the Taiwan Sugar Company aced them all. No one can produce fine orchids as cheaply as they can.
Moving sweet peas to California was a step toward turning horticulture into an industry. In a way, no one should complain about the process being pursued to its logical conclusion, but that does not make it any more acceptable to those who earned their living by it, or those who cherish the older ways.
Bibliography: Christensen, Bess Gedney. 2006. Acres of Loveliness.
Lompoc, California: Lompoc Valley Botanical and Horticultural Society.
Fletcher, Harold R. 1969. The Story of the Royal Horticultural Society 1804-1968. London and Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Royal Horticultural Society.
Genders, Roy. 1957. Sweet Peas for Exhibitor and Market Grower. London: John Gifford.
Hambidge, Colin. 1996. The Unwin’s Book of Sweet Peas. Cambridge: Silent Books
Hutchins, William T. 1892. All About Sweet Peas. Philadelphia: WA Burpee.
Jones, Bernard. 1965. Complete Guide to Sweet Peas. London: The Garden Book Club.
Morse, Lester. 1917. Field Notes on Sweet Peas. San Francisco: CC Morse and Co.
Rice, Graham. 2002. The Sweet Pea Book. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.
The Sweet Pea Annual. volumes 3 through 18, 1906-1920. National Sweet Pea Society.
Unwin, CWJ. 1986 (first issued 1952). Sweet Peas: Their History, Development and Culture. Cambridge: Heffer.
The author is indebted to Roger Parsons, holder of the National Sweet Pea Society’s archives, for checking the facts in this article; and to David Lemon of Ecke/Oglevee Ranch in Lompoc and Keith Hammett for their invaluable advice, help, and guidance in the preparation of this manuscript. Mrs Elizabeth Christensen was most generous with her time and the use of her records.
A Sweet Pea Resource Guide
Mail Order Nursery Sources
While the major growers noted in this article may no longer fill California’s valleys with color, there
are a number of smaller enterprises throughout the West offering a good selection of new and heirloom sweet peas.
Annie’s Annuals (plants)
PO Box 5002
Richmond, CA 94805
Enchanting Sweet Peas (seeds)
244 Florence Avenue
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Fragrant Garden Nursery (seeds)
PO Box 4246
Brookings, OR 97415
Renee’s Garden (seeds)
6116 Highway 9
Felton, CA 95018
Swallowtail Garden Seeds (seeds)
122 Calistoga Road #178
Santa Rosa, CA 95409
The Territorial Seed Company (seeds)
PO Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061