The Sweet Pea and its king…

Lathyrus odorata Cupani

Lathyrus odorata Cupani

Sweet peas are one of the glories of the garden. Relatively easy to grow and loved by everybody for their heady scent and delicate colouring, it’s hard to believe that the vast range of varieties we grow all descend from a  plant in a monastery garden in Sicily, collected and cultivated by a Franciscan monk, Francisco Cupani at the end of the 17thc. It was Cupani who sent seeds to botanic friends and correspondents all over Europe including Robert Uvedale, an Enfield schoolmaster in 1699 or 1700 who is responsible for introducing this garden favourite to Britain.

That original plant, now known as Cupani,  was small, with dark blue, purple-hooded flowers and an intense fragrance, but very little hybridizing was done until Shropshire gardener Henry Eckford cross-bred and developed the modern form of the sweet pea,  and turned it from a rather insignificant if sweetly scented flower into one of floral sensations of the late 19thc.

Read on to find out more about Henry who became known the Sweet Pea King,  as well as  some of the history of one of the country’s favourite flowers.

Sweet peas and summer flowers, 1891

Sweet peas and summer flowers, 1891

Horti medici amstelodamensis rariorum, vol 2 plate 80

Caspar Commelin, Horti medici amstelodamensis rariorum, vol 2 , plate 80

Apart from Uvedale, other botanists who received seeds from Cupani included Caspar Commelin at the Botanic gardens in Amsterdam. He included them in his comprehensive catalogue of plants grown there published in 1701 which includes the earliest botanical illustration of a sweet pea.

Other botanists of the period described sweet peas too, although the descriptions are rather varied, and chronology rather complicated, but there is a detailed account of these other early  mentions in a  pamphlet by Richard Dean which can be found at:

from Philip Miller, The gardeners dictionary, 1754 ed

from Philip Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary, 1754 ed

Robert Uvedale, like all good gardeners, shared his treasures with his friends and the sweet pea quickly spread around the gardening enthusiastic of early 18thc London.  By the 1720s seeds of “sweet sented pease” were on sale and Thomas Fairchild was recommending they were planted in London squares  not only because they look nice but because they smell “something like honey and a little tending to orange flower.” Nurseryman Robert Furber included sweet peas in his catalogue’s   June plate  in 1730 – although it’s virtually unrecognizable.   Philip Miller of Chelsea physic garden  mentions them in his Gardeners’ Dictionary of 1735, although there are no varieties named until the 1754 edition when a white form and a bi-coloured form, Painted Lady, are listed.

Curtis Botanical Magazine, vol.2 plate 60, 1788

Curtis Botanical Magazine, vol.2 plate 60, 1788

The original form appeared in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1788 with the notes accompanying the plate saying “there is scarcely a plant more generally cultivated than the Sweet Pea, and no wonder, since with the most delicate blossoms it unites an agreeable fragrance.” This is in spite of the fact  that general cultivation still only extended to the two other sorts listed by Miller.

But somewhere along the line someone must have at least noticed sports, or perhaps begun attempts to cross-breed. By 1793 the London seedsman John Mason had 5 varieties for sale from his shop on the Strand, adding black,purple and scarlet to the colour range.   But progress was slow.  Even by 1842 James Carter, the  founder of Carters Tested Seeds, who is the first person known to have started a breeding programme, only offered 7,  whilst by 1850 the firm of Noble, Cooper and Bolton, successors to Mason at the same address on Fleet Street, just 9.


from Gardeners’ Chronicle. Dec. 10, 1859 p. 990

from Gardeners’ Chronicle. Dec. 10, 1859 p. 990

Because hybridizing sweet peas is       relatively easy and yields results quickly,  amateurs took up the challenge too and by 1860 Carter’s firm was selling a white sweet pea edged with blue, the first recorded with any form of blue colouring. This had been developed by Major Trevor Clarke of Daventry. In 1867 Carters went on to win the first ever prize awarded at an RHS show for a sweet pea for his cultivar Invincible Scarlet which was probably bred by another amateur Steven Smith of Sudbury in Suffolk.

In the colored plate the center flower is known as Scarlet. In this it may be noticed that the petals forming the keel are white, the wings rose-colored, and the banner scarlet. At the right of this center flower is one with white keel and very dark crimson wings and banner, this variety in the trade is called Black. Directly underneath the last mentioned one is what is known as Blue Edged. Above the center flower, Scarlet, is one with white keel and white wings and a rose-colored banner; this is Painted Lady. At the upper left-hand corner of the group is Scarlet Invincible, having a white keel and scarlet wings and banner. (From Vick's Illustrated Magazine, March 1882)

Scarlet Invincible, [with a white keel and scarlet wings] is in the upper left, and Blue Edged in the bottom right
From Vick’s Illustrated Magazine, March 1882

From then on new varieties began to appear regularly as commercial nurserymen like Carters, Suttons, Lee’s in Hammersmith, and a firm called Messrs Muskett &Sons who I have been unable to trace [so  if you have any clues let me know]  and Thomas Laxton a Rutland solicitor turned professional plant hybridizer competed. But there was no-one who could compete with Henry Eckford. Henry was a Scot, born in 1823, and apprenticed as a gardener at Lord Lovat’s Beaufort Castle in Inverness-shire.  Lovat was then building up a garden and tree collection of considerable significance, so it was a good training ground.

Between 1841 and 1847 Henry followed a typical career pattern working in a string of well-known Scottish estates until, aged twenty-four and with ten years’ experience, he travelled to London  to work with orchid specialist Hugh Low at his nursery in Clapton. From there he  went to work for Colonel Baker, a dahlia expert in Salisbury, then   moved to Trentham, the Staffordshire seat of the duke of Sutherland, and on again to Kenwood in north London.

Coleshill House, destroyed by fire 1952

Coleshill House, destroyed by fire 1952

Sandywell Park N.W. view of Sandywell Park .." engraved by W.Radclyffe after a drawing by G.Fielding & Henry Lamb, published in Griffiths History of Cheltenham and Its Vicinity, 1838

Sandywell Park
N.W. view of Sandywell Park ..” engraved by W.Radclyffe after a drawing by G.Fielding & Henry Lamb, published in Griffiths History of Cheltenham and Its Vicinity, 1838

Finally in  1858 Eckford settled down in Wiltshire as head gardener for the earl of Radnor at Coleshill where he remained for the next 20 years.

In many of these great gardens and nurseries he had the chance to learn about plant hybridization and at Coleshill he put what he had learned into practice, raising new dahlias, pelargoniums, and verbenas.  It stood him in good stead when in 1878 he was asked to work in the gardens of the lunatic asylum at Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, run by Dr William Sankey who was also a keen amateur plant hybridist.

Eckford  later moved with Sankey to the asylum’s new home  at Boreatton Park, an imposing mid-19thc mansion  in Shropshire in 1884. Later it became an approved school and is now an adventure holiday centre.

It was while he was at Sandywell that he began the sweet pea experiments for which he became famous.  Obtaining seeds of the finest varieties from the major nurseries,  he began to cross  and select them, looking for a new cut flower to compete with such fashionable flowers as verbenas etc.  Gradually Eckford developed new sweet pea varieties with more and larger flowers on longer stems,  with stronger fragrance, and a much wider rage of colours and that were capable under the best conditions of being kept in flower for more than half the year.   These larger flowered sorts he  termed ‘grandifloras’ and he began to exhibit them at RHS shows, winning his first award in 1882 for a cultivar named Bronze Prince. Like most others from this period it has disappeared from cultivation and there are no images.

Trade list of Eckford's novelties in culinary & sweet peas. Wem (1898)

Trade list of Eckford’s novelties in culinary & sweet peas, 1898.

At the age of 65 Eckford finally set up his own business at Wem,  ‘a place quite out of the way, where people would leave me alone, and where I could grow my peas’ (Martin, ‘Henry Eckford’).

His breeding programme was highly successful and by 1901, Henry had introduced no less than 115 out of the 264 cultivars  which were commercially available.

Washington Atlee Burpee and henry Eckford,

Washington Atlee Burpee and Henry Eckford,

His reputation and his sweet peas also spread round the world, particularly in North America, with seeds being commercially ‘bulked up’ in California and then marketed across the continent  by the Burpee Seed Company of Philadelphia, run by the wonderfully named Washington Atlee Burpee.  Burpee also started a breeding programme which  led to a craze for sweet peas across America too.  More about that if you are interested see Judith Taylor’s article at:


Thomas Laxton carte de visite, Lindley Library, RHS

Of course, as we have seen, Henry was not alone in breeding sweet peas. Thomas Laxton, in particular, introduced a   large number of new cultivars including several which won awards, but unfortunately most of his efforts “resulted in varieties that for all practical purposes duplicates of those being put on the market” by Eckford. Because  “Laxton was too good a florist to create confusion… his work was to a large extent discounted.” However his sons formed Laxton Brothers which continued his hybridizing work but on dwarf forms of sweet peas, usually known as Cupids.


A Peep at the Bicentenary Show from Richard Dean’s Report of the celebration of the bicentenary … 1900

By 1899 extensive trials were being held at the grounds of Hurst and Sons, at Kelvedon and this led to the formation of A Sweet Pea Bicentenary  Celebration committe. They  held an exhibition at the Crystal Palace in July the following year, as well as a conference  “for the purpose of attempting something in the way of a scheme of classification, if such were practicable.” [Dean, p.11].

Carters Stand at the Show from The Sweet pea bicentenary celebration. Report of the celebration of the bicentenary of the introduction of the sweet pea into Great Britain by Dean, Richard, 1830-1905 Published 1900

Carters Stand at the Show from The Sweet Pea Bicentenary Celebration. from Richard Dean’s  Report of the celebration of the bicentenary …

It must have been spectacular. As with rose shows [see Five vicars and some roses, January 2015] there were many classes for growers to enter, and even several for amateurs who had only one gardener – or even – shock horror – grew plants without any paid assistance whatsoever.  Of the 34 classes one was for 100 bunches in 10  different shades, and another for “a decorated dinner table six feet in length by four feet in width, arranged with sweet peas and their foliage only.”

One of the exhibits in particular caused a stir. It was a flower shown by  Silas Cole, Earl spencer’s gardener at Althrop.  Countess Spencer had  much larger flowers than usual pink but  had wavy edged petals rather than the straight edged of other varieties.  That might seem insignificant to us but it in such  a competitive world it was a big step.

Silas Cole

Silas Cole

Cole grew many of Eckford’s varieties and claimed it was the result of a deliberate breeding scheme based around them.  In a letter to the fifth Earl Spencer, he related the story:  “Being very fond of sweet peas, I turned my attention to them in 1898. That summer I crossed the variety Lovely with Triumph, saved the seed and the following year 1899 there were two or three promising seedlings, the rest being rubbish.

The good ones I crossed with Prima Donna and the next season that was 1900 there was one plant among the seedlings much stronger than any of the other varieties. That proved to be the original Countess Spencer. I just managed to save five seeds – one pod only.

The following spring, after sowing them, I lost three of them in one night through mice. The stock was then reduced to two plants but from them I saved 90 seeds. It was from these plants I exhibited at the old Royal Aquarium for the first time.

In 1902 I sowed all the seeds, every one came true but owing to it being a wet summer I only managed to save 3,000 seeds. 2,200 of these were sent in 1903 to America to be grown for stock by Mr Sydenham. Those that came back from America were a mixture of all sorts but no more like my true Countess Spencer than night is like day.” []

Gladys Unwin from The Garden. , vol. 67: (1905)

Gladys Unwin from The Garden. , vol. 67: (1905)

In fact it is almost certain that Countess Spencer was merely a sport, since that year several other growers including W.J.Unwin who ran a cut-flower nursery outside Cambridge, and a Mr E. Viner an amateur grower from Frome in Somerset  reported a similar occurrence and also managed to grow wavy petalled plants.  Unwin named his new variety “Gladys Unwin” after his elder daughter,  and Viner named his “Nellie Viner”,  before selling the seed to Eckford.


Both  proved more stable [ie came truer from seed] than Countess Spencer but nonetheless Cole’s publicity and the aristocratic association with the Spencers was sufficient to ensure that his was the story that stuck, and so the Spencer strain of sweet peas was born.    These have long stems and large flowers, which make them ideal for showing, and despite the fact that they have little fragrance they dominated the sweet pea market until recently.

Roy Strong wrote hilariously of Prince Charles  and Lady Salisbury “hymning what they referred to as the pre-Spencer varieties as if the poor sweet pea had formed a misalliance with a kitchen maid” whilst Vita Sackville-West “who writes as if she had swum the Channel with a horticultural Almanach de Gotha between her teeth, similarly had a down on the modern hybrids.” [Daily Telegraph, 17th August 1997]


from Richard Dean’s Report of the celebration of the bicentenary … 1900

By 1904 the interest in sweet peas was so great that  a National Sweet Pea Society was formed with Eckford as its first president. Almost its first job was “attempting to reduce the overwhelming number of varieties and restore order where there is something like chaos, an immense number of sorts with a still greater number of names.”  There were, even then, thousands of supposedly different named varieties, many of which were not stable and passed out of cultivation very quickly.

Sweet peas and how to grow them by Thomas, H. H. (Harry Higgott) Published 1909

from Sweet peas and how to grow them
by Harry Higgott Thomas, 1909

Eckford was  awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria medal of honour just before he died in 1905.




Sweet pea mania continued unabated. In 1911 Lord Northcliffe the owner of the Daily Mail offered a prize of £1,000  – a huge sum – for  the amateur gardener who grew the best bunch of sweet peas, with second and third prizes of £100 and £50 respectively.  No fewer than 38,000 bunches were sent in to the exhibition  held in July at the Crystal Palace in London although only 2,500 could be displayed in the marquee.  article-0-0D368708000005DC-68_468x375

The winner was a Mrs Fraser, of Sprouston in the Scottish Borders whose husband,  a church minister, had sent in one bunch in his name and one in his wife’s, as the rules allowed. He won 3rd prize.  The Daily Mail still sponsor the main prize in the NSPS shows.

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Henry Eckford from

After Eckford’s death his son John Stainer Eckford (1864–1944) carried on the seed business at Wem, but the task of championing sweet peas and raising new varieties fell largely on the Unwin family who are still one of the leading growers. For more on them see  Colin Hambidge,  The Unwins Century, 2003 and Charles Unwin, Sweet Peas: Their History, Development & Culture,  first edition 1926, 4th edition 1986.

Regarded as the father of the sweet pea, Henry Eckford  “found the Sweet Pea little known and as little valued, and transformed it into that glorious annual which is now found in almost every British garden” an expert breeder wrote of his achievement (Unwin, 1986, p4). In honour of Henry Eckford  the Eckford Sweet Pea Society of Wem holds each year in July a sweet pea show which has a section for old fashioned varieties, always including many bred by Henry himself.

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