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What is a Sweet Pea?

Horticulturist Henry Eckford introduced over 115 varieties of peas during the Victorian era.
Sweet peas are prone to pest infestations, but ladybugs can help.
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  • Written By: Sonal Panse
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2014
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A Sweet Pea, also known as Lathyrus Odoratus, is an annual garden climbing plant from the legume family Fabaceae. Sweet Peas have a Mediterranean origin, but now thrive worldwide. They are very popular with gardeners as they are attractive and easy to grow.

The Sweet Pea plant, if properly supported, can grow up to four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) tall. The compound leaves consist of two leaflets with a tendril in the middle. It is this tendril that grasps a support and helps the plant climb.

Sweet Pea flowers are fragrant, delicate-looking and a single bloom has three or four florets on a stem. While Wild Sweet Peas come in a few select colors, specially cultivated varieties or cultivars are available in a very wide profusion of colors. Sweet Pea cultivars have been grown since the seventeenth century.

Henry Eckford, a Victorian-era Scottish horticulturist, introduced over 115 varieties. He was responsible for the Sweet Pea's transformation from an ordinary garden flower to a show winner. Mr Eckford received royal recognition and many awards for his work.

Sweet Peas are cultivated from seeds. These seeds, incidentally, are very toxic; unlike their legume relatives, they are not to be eaten. To get show variety flowers and colors of your choice, buy top quality seeds from a reliable seed retailer.

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Some gardeners prefer soaking the seeds overnight before planting. This softens the hard seed cover, and the seeds that swell up are the ones guaranteed to develop into seedlings. Others consider this practice detrimental to plant growth.

Planting season is usually from March to November. Prepare a compost-mixed flower bed in a sunny, well-drained area. Plant the seeds at a suitable distance from each other, without overcrowding. Let the seedlings develop.

There are two methods of growing Sweet Pea seedlings, natural and cordon. In natural, the plants are planted where they can pick their own support and can grow and climb as they please. In cordon method, a separate support is provided to each plant. After four to six weeks of seedling growth, barring a main stem, all extra shoots are snipped off.

Commercial and show growers follow the cordon method. With just one main stem, the plant can concentrate on producing better quality flowers. To further strengthen the plant, some gardeners snip off early flowers. The plant then begins producing the four florets per stem blooms.

Flowers usually appear about two or three months after planting. Regular cutting as the flowers open helps encourage more flower growth. Don't allow the flowers to develop seeds, as this slows down flower production. Cut flowers, if placed in a lemon soda and water solution, can last longer than one or two days.

Apart from watering in dry spells and protection in cold, Sweet Pea plants require little looking after. They are normally rather resilient plants. However, make sure you guard plants against snails, slugs, aphids, pollen beetles, leaf hoppers, mice and birds. Some diseases that affect Sweet Peas are bud drop, leaf scorch and powdery mildew.

Deal with the pests by introducing lacewings and ladybugs in the Sweet Pea garden. A spray of soap water can help with both pests and disease. Avoid chemicals unless the situation is really dire.

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