Human Flower Project
Blame the Spencers
For the downfall of sweet peas, fragrance-loving gardeners still point an angry finger at Althorp and its longtime gardener, Silas Cole.
I, but not my cousin Ben, am descended from the Spencer family of England, and even wear the name.
Over the years my dear cousin, a magnificent gardener, has rather unkindly pointed out that the Spencers were at fault for sweet pea flowers growing obese, frilly and fragrance-less. I now know why Princess Diana suffered so. She, of course, was a Spencer too.
Cupani’s sweet pea
Image: Alchemy Works
According to most sources, a small, bicolored Lathyrus odoratus grew wild in Sicily. Franciscan friar and botanist Francisco Cupani had found sweet peas and cultivated them in his Palermo garden by 1695. He then “sent seed to two of his horticultural acquaintances in northern Europe”: Dr. Casper Cummelin, a botanist in Amsterdam, and Dr. Robert Uvedale, a teacher from Middlesex, England.
From this historic gardens resource we learn that “Breeders, such as Henry Eckford, a professional gardener who from 1879 worked with the amateur hybridist, Dr William Sankey, were producing ever-larger flowers and a wider range of colours - the Grandiflora range.” Why doesn’t anybody blame them for today’s big purple dog-tongue sweet peas?
But no. The story always goes that Silas Cole, the gardener at the Spencer manse Althorp is responsible. Here are Mr. Cole’s own words, from a letter written in 1911:
Spencer sweet peas
Photo: Victoriana Nursery Gardens
“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’”…
...the big bloom that according to my cousin Ben and many others was the sweet pea’s ruin.
Silas Cole and Frederick, Fourth Earl Spencer
Please read on, from Silas Cole’s letter: “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.”
Wouldn’t you know the Royal Horticultural Society purveys the same mean story. The RHS writes of ‘Countess Spencer,’ “Raised by Silas Cole, gardener to Earl Spencer at Althorp Park, Northampton, its large frilly flowers caused a sensation. It outshone the smaller, plainer cultivars and was the first of the Spencer sweet peas hybrids which today are the most widely grown Lathyrus odoratus and are what most people recognise as a sweet pea.”
Oh, how very common! (And how touchy the royals are about being “outshone.”)
Lest one worry that polite and sweetly scented civilization is at the precipice, fragrant sweet peas continue to be available. And many fair-minded seed sellers note that the old Spencer varieties are in fact scented, just not as strongly as Fr. Cupani’s originals.
Now, if you all want to continue picking on my people and an old man who was nearly wiped out by mice, go ahead.