Gardeners reading books about sweet peas, or looking in seed catalogues, will find very contradictory accounts of the early history of the sweet pea, and the identity of the original form first introduced into cultivation. Even Linnaeus gave Ceylon as one of the original homes of the sweet pea and some more recent authors have speculated that it might have been South America. Ironically, the true history is well documented, and much of the confusion has been due to later authors repeating earlier mistakes and guesses without making any effort to verify the facts.
There are two sweet peas which current catalogues list as being the original sweet pea, 'Matucana' and 'Cupani Original'. And in spite of the fact that some writers claim that these varieties are identical, the truth is that they differ greatly in almost all respects. The purpose of this article is to clarify the situation.
The root of many misconceptions lies in an article entitled "The Old Sweet Peas" by J. F. Turral published in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society in January 1965. Professor S. C. Harland collected seed of several sweet peas in South America, and these he brought back to the UK under the names 'Matucana', 'Quito', and 'Sicilian Pink'. Turral speculated that these varieties might have been introduced into South America in the 16th Century from 'Muslim Spain'. Later authors quoted these ideas as proven fact and even attributed quite spurious dates to the 'origin' of these forms. The reality is quite different. Detailed studies by Dr Keith Hammett showed that genetic make up of all these supposedly ancestral varieties pointed to them originating from cultivated material in the 1920s.
Although the material sold as 'Matucana' is not entirely consistent, it generally has four flowers per stem, and the flower size is similar to that of the later grandiflora varieties, achieved after decades of intensive breeding and selection by seedsmen in the UK, Europe and the USA. Plant growth is vigorous and both leaf and legume indicate that this is a relatively late grandiflora type sweet pea.
'Cupani Original', has many features which mark it out as distinct from the later grandiflora types. Flowers are noticeably smaller, flower colour and fragrance are both more intense, and there are only two flowers per stem. All this matches the original description given by Cupani and used by Linnaeus in volume 2 of his Species Plantarum in 1753. It is significant that Linnaeus places Lathyrus odoratus in the section Pedunculis bifloris, or two flowered Lathyrus species. The form known as 'Cupani Original' was selected by Dr Hammett out of all the material available as being genetically the most primitive, and as matching the earliest description and illustration.
The original references to the sweet pea, now known as Lathyrus odoratus, are as follows:
- Sillabus Plantarum Scillae-nuper Detectarum à Fr Cupani 1695.
- Cupani, F. 1696 Hortus Catholicus
- Commelin, C. 1701 Horti Medici Amstelædamensis Rariorum
It is very clear that the variety 'Cupani Original' is the most primitive form of sweet pea known, and essentially the same as that sent over by Cupani to his contacts in the UK and Holland in 1699. 'Matucana', on the other hand, dates only as far back as the 1920s, over 200 years later than the original introduction. For those wishing to compare the two varieties side by side, seed of both is available from Owl's Acre Sweet Peas.