Flowers

About the British Sweet Pea

Written by Alastair Owen
June 17, 2013

On Day One of British Flowers Week: Discover all about Paul Thomas's favourite British summer flower, the Sweet Pea!

The British Sweet Pea Fact File

Latin name: lathyrus odoratus
Common name: sweet pea
Availability: February to September
Colours: white, cream, salmon, pinks, red, lilacs, purples, blues
Best buying days: Monday and Thursday
Key wholesalers: SR Allen, Zest, Pratley

The British Sweet Pea - Mixed

The Origins of The Sweet Pea

The British took the humble sweet pea, lathyrus odoratus, to their gardening hearts in the early 1900s, when Henry Eckford of Wem bred and introduced the deliciously fragrant grandiflora sweet peas that we know today.

The origins of the sweet pea, meaning 'delicate pleasures' can be traced back as far as the early 1700s, when Franciscus Cupani, and Italian monk, sent the very first sweet pea seeds to Britain.

White British sweet pea

The poet John Keats seemed smitten by the beauty of the sweet pea, and is even credited with giving lathyrus odoratus its common name:

"Here are sweet peas,on tip-toe for a flight
With wings of gentle flusho'er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things
To bind them all about with tiny rings."

Growing sweet peas for floristry

Today’s Flower Market florists can get their hands on these 'delicate pleasures' from British glasshouses from as early as February and the season ends with the outdoor grown varieties.

Sweet peas at New Covent Garden Market

The growers pre-treat the sweet peas for longer vase life, and the flowers come in with an elegant stem length of 18 inches or more. The growers' secret to producing longer stems is to allow sweet peas to grow slowly and steadily.

British sweet peas appear to suffer less from the vagaries of the British climate than other flowers, principally as they are grown under cover, and the quality and availability is outstanding. Florists can confidently promise them to brides and clients and pre-order them through their wholesalers for weddings and events.

A feast for the senses

The soft, paper-like texture of the humble sweet pea coupled with its delicate, fruity fragrance belies its tough, resilient nature. Sweet peas are always a feast for the senses displayed en masse at Chelsea or in the chill of the Flower Market.

Mixed colours of sweet pea

The colour palette ranges now from purples, pinks and creams to salmon and bi-colour varieties.

"British-grown sweet peas are simply the best," says Paul Thomas, who has selected the sweet pea as his favourite flower in British Flower Week. "They beat the Dutch hands down. The quality is always amazing, the scents delicious and their flowering season is more prolonged than the Dutch."

Paul Thomas

Where to buy sweet peas at the Flower Market

Currently, sweet peas come into the Flower Market fresh from the growers for Monday and Thursday morning trading. To catch the pick of the sweet pea bunch, you need to be an early riser or book them in advance, as it is a question of first up, best served.

Key wholesalers of British sweet peas include:
SR Allen
Zest Flowers
Pratley

If you have any top tips on British-grown sweet peas, we would love to hear from you. Simply type in the boxes below…

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