The History of Dwarf Sweet Peas

The original dwarf sweet pea was found in 1893 by C. C. Morse & Co of San Francisco, California, growing in a row of the popular grandiflora variety 'Emily Henderson'. Like its parent, it had white flowers but was only a few inches tall with a spreading habit. It was given the name 'Cupid', which subsequently became used as the epithet for dwarf sweet peas generally. The new form bred true from the start, and was introduced in 1895 by W. Atlee Burpee & Co. of Philadelphia.

It is an indication of the excitement with which this new mutation was greeted, that from the single plant discovered in 1893, 100 plants were produced in 1894, and the seed was released commercially in 1895. Unfortunately, the seed of this variety had a very thin seed coat and gave very poor germination under garden conditions; for that reason it did not remain long in commerce.

In 1895 another dwarf sport was found in the variety 'Blanche Ferry' and this was essentially the same pink and white 'Pink Cupid' which is still popular today. Two years later the original white 'Cupid' sported to produce the cream coloured 'Primrose Cupid'.

These varieties were crossed with existing grandiflora varieties to give cupids in a wide range of patterns and colours. Subsequently the cupids were crossed with the new 'Spencer' sweet peas to produce a strain of large flowered cupids. Writing in 1916, Lester L. Morse described the 'Spencer Cupids' as "much prettier than the Grandiflora Cupid" but states that they were not thought to have any commercial value.

The habit of the 'cupid' strain appears to have been remarkable consistent, plants making a spread of about 12" to 18" but only 4" to 6" in height. Leaves and tendrils are much reduced in size, but flower size remains close to normal.

The cupids were first grown in the UK in 1895 by Mr J Douglas of Great Gearies, Ilford, from a sample batch of seed sent over from America by Burpee. The plants were exhibited at a meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society on June 25th of that year and attracted considerable attention, receiving an Award of Merit. An article in the subsequent issue of "The Garden", however, decried the new form as "a poor apology for a noble garden flower".

In 1902, a large number of cupid varieties were grown by Messrs Hurst and Sons at their trial grounds on behalf of the National Sweet Pea Society, but few found much favour, and several suffered severe bud drop. This may well be an indication of why the 'Spencer Cupids' were not considered to be worth marketing, as 'Spencer' varieties are inherently more prone to bud drop than the grandifloras.

Although it was the American seed companies which developed the new form, there were two cases of dwarf sweet peas arising in Europe about the same time. In 1893 a plant of 'Cupid' was found in Western France in a row of 'Emily Henderson', and in 1892 the seedsman Ernst Benary of Erfurt in Germany discovered a white flowered dwarf sport which he named 'Tom Thumb'. This, however, was significantly taller than the American 'Cupid' and eventually gave rise to a strain referred to as 'Erect Cupids', but now better known as 'Bijou'. These varieties have an upright mode of growth, and generally reach about 12" in height.

Cupids were also crossed with the early or winter flowering strain of sweet peas to give a race of early flowering cupids. These came into flower about a month earlier than normal, and were considered to have great potential for use in areas with warm winters. It is unlikely that any winter flowering cupids survive in cultivation.

Many strains of dwarf sweet peas have been developed over the last 100 years, but seed supplies have often been unreliable and of poor quality. With a resurgence of interest in this form, and a better understanding of their requirements, it is to be hoped that they will again achieve the level of popularity they deserve.

Among the strains of dwarf sweet peas which may still be found in seedsmen's catalogues are 'Colour Carpet', 'Fantasia', 'Little Sweetheart' and 'Pinocchio', aka 'Pinnochio'. Most recently the 'Cherub™ ' strain has been produced specifically to suit the cooler wetter summer conditions that prevail in the UK and much of Western Europe.