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Tale of Two Painted Ladies

April is gorgeous and sad at the same time. Gorgeous in that all the spring flowers are in operatic bloom, sad in that they are at the moment right before they decline. Every moment in the garden is precious in that way–at any day’s notice, this momentary show will start to look seedy, weedy and making way for the summer heat. My poppies are stretching for light now that all the trees have filled in so I am trying to at least capture them on film as much as I can.

The sweet peas will be the first to go in the heat; most of them are already riddled with powdery mildew, especially the early-blooming types. Although I adore the fragrant old-fashioned sweet peas, they don’t start blooming until right now, and they have about three weeks before the heat starts to get them.

If you are a Texas gardener and you really want to have more than three weeks of sweet peas, the winter-blooming types are the way to go. Sadly, they just have so little fragrance, which to me is the whole point of growing sweet peas, although I can’t complain that I’ve had two months of gorgeous flowers to cut.

powdery mildew, the bane of sweet peas

There is, however, one exception to these, the old-fashioned Painted Lady, probably the oldest variety in cultivation next to the original sweet pea itself. This gorgeous and dainty pink and white pea blooms first in my garden–the last two years it started in January. Unlike most of my sweet peas, I started this from a nursery-grown transplant so it has a slight head start on the others.

There is a conundrum with my Painted Lady. According to Graham Rice, the first early-blooming sweet pea was Blanche Ferry, which was a sport of Painted Lady. However, when I grew Blanche Ferry from seed last year, it didn’t bloom until April, along with the other old-fashioned Grandifloras. In other words, Painted Lady is supposed to be a spring-blooming sweet pea, and Blanche Ferry the earlier one. So this year I experimented again. I obtained seeds of Painted Lady from Owl’s Acre in England, and bought a transplant of Painted Lady from the nursery, to see if both would bloom early. Once again, the transplanted Painted Lady started blooming in January. The seed-grown version, however, stayed quite small until last month, took off and finally started blooming last week. Not only did it bloom two months later, it looks distinctly different–to a casual gardener, maybe not by much, but very different to me.

Painted Lady on left, Blanche Ferry on right.

The flowers of my seed-grown Painted Lady are dark pink in their standards (upper petals) and a brushed pink on their wings (lower petals). The transplant-grown Painted Lady is a distinct pink and white (occasionally its lower petals have a brushed pale pink but they quickly fade to white). The seed-grown Painted Lady also has slightly larger flowers. I like horticultural mysteries and mix-ups are not unusual (see my entry on Byzantine gladiolus), so I revisited the Owl’s Acre site which says:

“The original Painted Lady sweet pea arose as a sport from ‘Cupani’ in about 1730. It had only one or two small flowers per stem, and survived in cultivation at least until 1910 when it was not considered to be worth growing. This form is clearly a more recent reselection, with larger, more numerous flowers.”

So my seed-grown flowers are definitely a more recent selection than my transplants. Roger Parsons, a horticulturalist responsible for maintaining the British National Collection of sweet peas, mentions a potential mix-up on his site: “Almost all Old-Fashioned types are also Summer flowering. The exception to this is ‘Blanche Ferry’, named in 1889, which was originally released as an early flowering form of ‘Painted Lady’. I suspect that the two have got a little mixed since there are stocks of ‘Blanche Ferry’ which flower in summer and stocks of ‘Painted Lady’ which flower earlier. ”

As with many heirloom flowers, especially ones of an 18th century variety, things change over time, re-selection might add slight new characteristics, and growing environments and cultures will eventually add their own stamp. In other words, the heirloom you are growing today might not be exactly as it was 200 years ago. Most of the very early sweet peas, for example, only had one or two flowers on each stem, but even the heirloom Cupani, which is supposed to be the original, has sometimes three or four. Some horticulturalists hunt for plants with more primitive characteristics, often from their native homeland, in order to breed back some of the originality. (Fragrance in particular is most potent in the primitive kinds.)

So I have two Painted Ladies. The early-blooming Painted Lady is probably older than the seed-grown one, as it has smaller flowers and less of them per stem. It is also most likely to be closer to Blanche Ferry than it is to Painted Lady. Perhaps I could complete my experiment by finding seeds of a more primitive Painted Lady rather than the Owl’s Acre variety. Renee’s Garden started selling Painted Lady this spring, claiming it to be early-blooming, so perhaps it is more like my nursery-grown plant.

Gardening has seemed to spark in me a new interest in science and little growing experiments. I really enjoy amateur botany and growing things side by side for comparison. I’m fascinated with these beautiful flowers, their history and how to grow them better in our climate. because the early-blooming types are far more successful in my garden. Given how early the transplant Painted Lady blooms, I want to make sure I’m growing that one and not the other (while pretty and fragrant, simply not worth it for the 6 months it doesn’t flower). I adore the Old-fashioned and fragrant sweet peas, but they bloom too late here. I wish there was more color variety in early-blooming types, more fragrance. My early-blooming Painted Lady is the one source of beautiful fragrance along my entire fence of sweet peas.

The other early-blooming sweet peas are Winter Elegance, Cuthbertson’s (Royals), Mammoths and the recent “Winter Sunshine” series by Owl’s Acre. All of these have lovely colors but rather dull fragrances (which seems to be a bit stronger in the darker colors). Additionally, none of the winter-blooming types have bi-colors (which Painted Lady and Cupani have) or other unusual color patterns like streaks or picotees which are all widely available in the Spencer/summer-blooming sweet peas. Perhaps the gene for early blooming peas prevents unusual color patterns.

Last year I grew a seed mixture called “Old Spice” and of this mix there was one pea in particular that flowered early. I wish I would have saved the seed. Although sweet peas have been classified into three flowering seasons, there aren’t really strict boundaries here. The gene which influences early-flowering can have varying effects in plants, as I’ve discovered from a little research into pea genes. So there are always some exceptions. If you are reading this and know of some early-flowering old-Fashioned sweet peas, I’d love to hear from you.

I’m not a geneticist but I’m always conducting little odd science experiments. And there must be some old-fashioned pleasure in breeding one’s own flowers. Perhaps I should start breeding my own early Texas sweet pea?