America in the middle of the nineteenth century, is beating me. Mildew and aphids are the bugbears of my next plant, Lathyrus odoratus, the diminutive forerunner of garden sweet peas. L. o. Matucana’ (pictured opposite) is one of three named cultivars that closely resemble the original species, first described by Father Franciscus Cupani in its native Sicily in 1697. Two years later he sent seed to Dr Robert Uvedale, a fanatical gardener who was a master at Enfield Grammar School but, according to Miles Hadfield, devoted so much time to his garden that the authorities threatened to relieve him of his post’ (A History of British Gardening, 1960, reprinted by Penguin in 1985). I know the feeling. Uvedale considered Lathyrus odoratus to be a plant of rather weedy growth, but he got it into circulation and by the mid eighteenth century there were pink, purple, white and bicolour forms available. In man’s greedy quest for bigger and better, many of these delicate early sweet peas have been pushed out in favour of the frilly creatures that have been the rage since Edwardian days. But when you compare the intoxicating sweetness ofMatucana’ or any of the old-fashioned peas with their modern descendants, there’s simply no competition. The scent hasn’t changed since Thomas Fairchild’s description in 1722: somewhat like Honey and a little tending to the Orange-Flower smell’.
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