The Origin of Dwarf Sweet Peas
The first cultivars that grew discernibly shorter than traditional sweet peas were noticed in the USA around 1850 (see notes) in the era of the Grandiflora types, or ”old-fashioned” sweet peas. For 25 years, a quarryman’s wife in New York state (ie not in the city) grew the pretty old pink-and-white bicolour Painted Lady on her shallow and stony limestone soil. Every year she saved seed and over the years her continual selection meant her sweet peas evolved to be noticeably more compact. Her cultivar was introduced in 1889 as Blanche Ferry.
A much more startling development took place in 1893. In California, among rows of Emily Henderson, the best white sweet pea of its day, and itself a descendant of Blanche Ferry, a single white-flowered plant was found that grew only a few inches high. This new sport proved amazingly consistent, and it was sold to W Atlee Burpee, the largest American seed company of the time, who named it Cupid.
In that year another sport was found in Blanche Ferry. a pink and white counter-part of Cupid. Burpee paid $1,500 for the entire stock of 1,068 seeds, surely the highest sum ever paid for a sweet pea at the time,and introduced it in 1898. A yellow sport (in fact cream) was then found in Cupid White and introduced in 1899 as Cupid Primrose.
There followed a rapid flow of Cupid cultivars and soon of the many colours already found the Grandifloras were available, with 31 being introduced in just a few years. However, there was a problem. Germination of the first white-flowered Cupid was poor and, in spite of all the extensive breeding work, gardeners were disappointed. By 1914, Burpee had cut back to just a white, a pink and a mixture.