An introduction to Sweet Peas


The Sweet Pea originated in Sicily as a wild flower first recorded by a monk, Franciscus Cupani, in 1695 who subsequently sent seeds to plantsmen in Europe where it became widely grown.

By the Eighteenth Century several different colours were available and its propensity to mutate has given rise to a myriad of colours and forms, all characterised by its distinctive perfume. The Sweet Pea’s botanical name is Lathyrus odoratus and it is an annual plant, growing from seed, flowering and setting seed again within twelve months before dying off.

By the middle of the Nineteenth Century plantsmen were breeding new colours of Sweet Pea commercially, an interest which went into overdrive in the 1880s. Plants became bigger and more vigorous than the original wild sweet pea. Notable amongst these breeders were James Carter of London and Henry Eckford of Wem, Shropshire, who became known as the Father of the Sweet Pea.

Our Timeline below shows key developments in Sweet Pea history.




The first of the tall, large flowered, frilly Sweet Peas which we know so well today was introduced in 1901 and named ‘Countess Spencer’. All subsequent varieties with this form are known as Spencers and they are the most popular form grown today.

Old Fashioned

Any pre 1914 variety with smaller flowers is known as Old Fashioned as they pre-date the introduction of the large flowered, frilly petalled Spencers. The Eckford Society of Wem (link) are dedicated to maintaining an interest in these older varieties which are freely available and have a very strong perfume.


A term coined in the late nineteenth century to describe Henry Eckford’s introductions and hybridisations which were larger flowered and more vigorous than the wild variety. Grandiflora as a term is now used to refer to any flower that has plain petals and a clamped keel. There are many introductions of new varieties which have this flower form and grandiflora and modern-grandifloras are available from seedsmen.


There are many different forms of Sweet Pea. The Gawlers are a series of Sweet Peas developed in Southern Australia with distinctive properties. Multi-flora varieties have more than five flowers per raceme, and some are early flowering. There are non-tendril varieties and dwarf and intermediate heights available.


There are around 160 different Lathyrus Species around the world, of which the Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is one. Other varieties of Lathyrus do not have the scent of the Sweet Pea, but they do make interesting garden plants. Some are annual and some perennial.

New Varieties

Breeders are constantly working on new varieties, crossing selected plants in the hope of introducing a new colour, or increase the number of blooms on a stem, or to select for winter-flowering characteristics. It takes many years of selective breeding; growing collected seed from a few plants and then increasing that seed until a stable new variety has been created. The NSPS lists the novelties which come to market that year in its Classification List. The gallery will show these introductions by year. Before coming to market novelties may be sent to the trial grounds organised by the NSPS.

Old Tom and sweet peas