February 19, 2019

Let Us Adore You, Sweet Pea


Credit: Epibase | Wikimedia Commons - Lathyrus odoratus 'Cupani'

• By Janine Pineo •

Sweet pea, how I love thee, let me count the ways.

First, you were discovered by a monk. A Franciscan monk named Franciscus Cupani. It was 1697 and there you were in Sicily just waiting for someone to notice you.

I can’t imagine his reaction when he saw you, probably clinging with tendrils around some other lesser weed. Your maroon and violet petals probably stunned him, but I’ll bet it was the fragrance lingering around you there on a sunny day, wafting gently on a warm breeze as he worked outside the monastery.

Maybe he couldn’t decipher where that intoxicating scent was coming from and had to look for you, but when he did find you, he started plotting how he could save your seeds for the next year.

And he did, because Cupani sent some to Dr. Robert Uvedale, a Brit with a penchant for botany. Uvedale kept you in his hothouses until somehow you showed him that you were hardy enough to grow outside in merry old England.

That’s another reason I love you. Sweet pea, you like Maine. It’s not too cold and not too hot for you. The heat can be a problem for those poor folks who live in warmer climes and can’t watch you blossom through the summer. Sure, you get a little droopy on blistering hot days, but so do I.

I especially like the way you weather the heat and then stand up to the cold. Of all my annuals, you alone keep blossoming through the early frosts. It doesn’t make parting any easier, but I can carry memories of you through the depths of winter unsullied by more flamboyant flowers.

I love you for your subtle elegance. You, sweet pea, make the most delightful choices in attire. There’s that demure side, where you just sort of glow in pastels. The pinks and lavenders you choose are most flattering.

Equally stunning are the bold colors you sometimes sport. The rich reds are dazzling, but I think you look your best in the deep blues.

Just in the past few years, I’ve found that you look fine in stripes as well. I couldn’t figure out how you defined stripe when it looked more like spots in a pattern, but then I read that your “stripes” are just on one side of the petal.

The “flake” look had me stymied. Much like stripes, I thought. Then I found that it means you’re striped inside and out.

But enough on oddities of the English language. I much prefer to talk about your moods.

There’s your interplanetary mood, with the ‘Comet,’ ‘Mars’ and ‘Nimbus’ looks. In shades of pink on white, red on white and purple on white, they run the gamut of celestial beauty. Your ‘Eclipse’ is a dream in mauve.

Then there’s your noble mood. ‘Countess Spencer’ is frilly and soft pink. ‘Lady Grisel Hamilton’ is a picture in lavender. ‘Queen Alexandra’ puts me in mind of a scarlet poppy, but my favorite is perhaps a bit less noble. ‘Painted Lady’ is definitely from your past, about 1730, but with its deep pink blush surrounding white wings, who wouldn’t be enthralled still?

Your seafaring moods are entrancing on their own. ‘North Shore’ is two shades of a blue sea, navy and violet. It goes well with ‘King Size Navy Blue,’ a five-flower winner. And I can’t help but like you when you are ‘Captain of the Blues.’

Much of the time, you enchant me with those British moments, such as ‘Wiltshire Ripple’ or ‘Windsor.’ But I like you when you branch out with ‘America’ or ‘Matucana’ or ‘Orange Dragon.’

Sweet pea, there’s just so much about you to love.

In my lonely winter, I have been thinking about you often. I even got desperate enough to look for you on the Internet. It was then I found out I am not alone in my love for you.

I found a lot of Web sites with lots of instructions about how you like to be pampered (lots of sunshine, a long soak before planting, plenty of water, easy on the fertilizer), but only one site embraced you with an enthusiasm I cannot but admire.

At www.lathyrus.com I found a like-minded soul who does nothing but grow sweet peas. And they’re for sale.

So stunned was I that I e-mailed the fellow and asked if he truly would send me such fine specimens. Mark – that’s his name – wrote back and said, yes, he would send me seeds all the way from England by airmail. He set my heart singing with the information that the next trials will be on the dwarf varieties.

I can just see little ones of you scattered here and there.

Sweet pea, for now I must go as I start to plan for spring planting time. However, let me leave you with this poem by John Keats that I came across just days ago:

“Here are Sweet-Peas on tip-toe for flight,
With wings of gentle flush, o’er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things
To bind them all about with tiny rings.”

First published in the Bangor Daily News in January 2001.

NOTE: www.lathyrus.com still sells an amazing selection of sweet peas.