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Sweet Peas: Admire the Flowers or Eat the Peas?

Sweet peas bloom in my birth month (April) -- and I love them. I love the soft colors, the complex flowers, the scent and the seasonality.

This year, when someone asked me for a birthday present idea, I said, "How about some sweet peas?"

I was standing in a farmer's market staring at buckets of bundled blossoms. A bouquet of sweet peas was what I had in mind. The delivered gift was a half dozen sweet pea plants tightly rolled in newspaper pots.

I just got them planted in the garden at the edges of the knitted trellis. They'll be fighting onions for ground space.  We don't have the soaker hoses set up yet so they will be at the mercy of whoever mans the watering can.

Will they bloom this late? Do they make edible legumes?


I've learned that sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are native to the eastern Mediterranean from Sicily east to Crete.

But it was a Scottish nurseryman Henry Eckford who turned them from a sweetly scented but visually insignificant flower to the darling of the Victorians. While the native plants are mainly purple, Eckford helped create plants with flowers in red, pink, blue, white and lavender.

So admiring the flowers is clearly in order . . .

As for eating, that's a darker tale.  Unlike traditional table peas, sweet peas have poisonous seeds if eaten in large enough quantities. Symptoms include paralysis, weakness, inability to move the lower limbs and emaciation of the gluteal (butt) muscles. The sweet pea-specific form of this condition  affects the bones and connecting tissues, causing hernias, aortic dissection and skeletal deformities. It has symptoms similar to scurvy or copper deficiency.

Despite their impact on health, sweet peas were a model organism for the study of genetics. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, actually used a different variety, but pioneer geneticist Reginald Punnett used sweet peas. It's ideal for research because it self-pollinates and has characteristics such as color, height and petal form that can be easily tracked.

So for my final question: Will my gift plants ever bloom?

Yes, if the weather stays cool.  But heat wipes out the blossoms.  They like rich soil, monthly feedings with a high-potassium fertilizer and regular water. Blood meal added to the soil is believed to help keep the stems long and suitable for cutting.

I suspect I should have had an earlier birthday or more foresighted friends to actually get a bouquet of sweet peas from this experience.

But with the passage of another year, I'm learning that positive expectations -- however deluded -- rarely have bad impacts.

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