Sweet Pea

sweat pea in flowerSweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is a flowering plant of the genus Lathyrus in the family Fabaceae (the legumes). Unlike most peas, the seeds of the sweet pea are not edible. They are often grown by gardeners for their bright colours and the sweet fragrance that gives them their name. The species is annual and so lasts for only one season.

Sweet peas have been cultivated since the 17th century and a vast number of varieties are commercially available.

Henry Eckford and the Sweet Pea

Henry Eckford (d.1906), a nursery-man of Scottish descent, cross-bred and developed the sweet pea, turning it from a rather insignificant, if sweetly scented flower, into the floral sensation of the late Victorian era.

His initial success and recognition came while serving as head gardener for the Earl of Radnor, raising new varieties of pelargoniums and dahlias. In 1870 he went to work for one Dr Sankey of Sandywell near Gloucester. A member of the Royal Horticultural Society, he was awarded a First Class Certificate -the top award- in 1882 for introducing the "Bronze Prince" variety of sweet pea, marking the start of association with the flower.

In 1888 he set up his development and trial fields for Sweet Peas in the north Shropshire market town of Wem. By 1900, he had introduced a total of 115 varieties, out of total 264 varieties grown at the time. (Graham Rice, The Sweet Pea Book, Batsford, 2002, p.9.) Eckford was presented with the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour for his work. He died in 1906 but his work was continued, for a time at least, by his son John Eckford.

For a while in the Victorian era, the town was known as "Wem, where the sweet peas grow". Iris Woodward, in her The Story of Wem, first published in the 1950s, records that this title was lost over time. More recently, however, the association between the sweet pea, the Eckfords and Wem has been highlighted again. In the late 1980s, the Sweet Pea Society of Wem started a now annual Sweet Pea show and the town has again taken the flower to its heart. Many of the street signs now carry sweet pea motif and an area of the town is known as Eckford Park.


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