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What's new in the world of sweetpeas? Sarah Raven explores the new breeds worth knowing

Sweet pea bunch
From new varieties like ‘Turquoise Lagoon’ to classics like ‘Winston Churchill’, this flower is a timeless source of beauty and scent. Credit:  Jonathan Buckley

Sweetpeas are British garden classics, almost beyond colour trends and Instagram fashion. Like fish and chips, they are what they are and it can feel like sacrilege if anyone claims to have “improved” them.

Without doubt, there are some essential sweetpea varieties that have been around for decades and that should be left just as they are, but some stupendous newly bred ones are jetting to the top of people’s trials, including ours at Perch Hill.

Old favourites

Lathyrus odoratus 'Almost Black' and 'Wiltshire Ripple' growing together Credit:  Jonathan Buckley

‘Matucana’ is leader of the old stalwarts. A bicolour in purple and crimson, good and floriferous, it indisputably has the strongest perfume. Its downside is the increasingly short stems as the season goes on, which can be a pain when picking and arranging.

They get so short, the flowers are in danger of being crushed in the bucket as you pick them, stem by laborious stem – and they’re forever falling out of the vase once arranged (see below right for tips).

I’m very keen on the rich ruby red ‘King Edward VII’, the similar colour ‘Winston Churchill’, the bold and brilliant pink bicolour ‘Prince Edward of York’ and deepest crimson black, ‘Almost Black’, which have all been around for years. I’d miss each one if we 
didn’t grow them.

Best of the newbies

Among recent introductions, there are a few definite improvements. The first is length of flowering. The shortness of the sweetpea season has almost put me off growing them in recent years – you plant them in pride of place on a specially made arch or tepee and they look great for a bit. Then their flowering tails off and the base of the plants succumbs to mildew however much you water and feed them.

Lathyrus odoratus 'Blue Velvet', 'Turquoise Lagoon' and 'Lilac Ripple' Credit: Jonathan Buckley

The lovely, rich-coloured ‘Blue Velvet’ and ivory and pink ‘Anniversary’ both flower from early June on into the autumn and the highly scented ‘Mollie Rilestone’ (similar to ‘Anniversary’), is almost as good. This makes them genuinely useful border plants, as well as scented cut flowers. I have ‘Blue Velvet’ flowering right now, surrounded by the late season bulb Galtonia candicans ‘Viridiflora’ and the towering perennial Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, classic August and September mixed border favourites. This length of performance is a real sweetpea breakthrough.

Some valuable new introductions reliably start to flower very early too. ‘Earl Grey’ is a newfound favourite for just this reason. From an autumn sowing, this was in full flower in my garden a week before the Chelsea Flower Show this year. I was able to pick many bunches – only of this – to take up to our seed stand at Chelsea this May. We had it under-planted in the garden here with the similarly early flowering Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ – they made a great garden and vase pairing. I’d highly recommend sowing both in the next few weeks to guarantee a spring blooming.

Top colour trends

As far as cut flowers go, Instagram currently favours soft, romantic colours – peach, apricot, gentle pink and milky coffee – and we’ve been trialling a few sweetpeas in that colour range this season. ‘Apricot Sprite’ and ‘Princess Elizabeth’ hit the spot, as does ‘Miss Willmott’ and ‘Maloy’. I find the colour salmon challenging and all of them border on it, but mixed with some softer, gentler pinks, vases looked glamorous and truly new this summer. We’ll certainly repeat them.

Lathyrus odoratus 'Fire and ice' Credit:  Jonathan Buckley

There are a few even more exotic colours emerging on the sweetpea scene. You’d have thought a turquoise-blue sweetpea, like a blue dahlia or rose, would be an impossibility, or if it occurred, it would be hideous, but I’ve fallen for one over the past couple of years. ‘Turquoise Lagoon’ opens an ordinary, so what-ish kind of mauve, but then turns to a true Aegean-sea blue. I love it arranged on its own in a rich-coloured vase and it can be a transforming highlight with deep crimsons.

I also like ‘Erewhon’ from the same ‘Blue Shift’ series, with a rich mauve nose with pink wings overlaid with a strange hint of mahogany. There’s a richness to the flowers which is unique.

More conventional but super pretty is ‘Fire and Ice’, with a white base very lightly stippled pale pink in the wings and bluey-lavender in the nose. This has been bred in the past decade and is more and more available. It also has good scent and a sort of translucent delicacy new to sweetpeas.

It’s worth thinking of sowing a few of these – old or new – in the next few weeks. An autumn or winter sowing of sweetpeas gives you deeper roots, and then bigger, taller, more mildew-resistant plants.

Seeds and seedlings suppliers: unwins.co.uk; rpsweetpeas.com; sarahraven.com; thompson-morgan.com; somersetsweetpeas.com