Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Henry Eckford Sweet Pea

A single stem of Henry Eckford on a trellis. Here, you can see the intense color, but you can also see some of the sunburn that happens on hot days.

In the first third of the 20th century, the agricultural valleys of California were full of sweet peas grown for seed, and even though Morse (of Ferry-Morse) grew his seeds a little further south on the peninsula, he maintained his business in San Francisco (1). This very land where my house now stands used to be covered in greenhouses for flower production. Maybe, in the early 20th century, like in other parts of California, sweet peas grew plentifully here. And perhaps, in the spring, the whole hill was fragrant with flowers. I like to picture it so.

Whether or not sweet peas grew here in the past, they grow here now. But the single variety that I choose to grow dates back to 1904, so it could have been here 100 years ago.

Sweet peas are among my favorite cut flowers to grow, especially the old varieties that were bred as much for fragrance as for other characteristics. Modern sweet peas have relatively large, ruffly flowers, with many per stem. But, so often, they lack the scent that gives them their name. Older varieties may or may not be ruffly (depending on whether they are pre or post the development of ruffly Spencer varieties), but they're dependebly fragrant. However, it's getting harder and harder to find single named heritage varieties in the United States. Seed companies occasionally sell heirloom mixes, but only a few sources provide named heritage varietes.

The best way to keep a historic variety alive is to grow it and share it. That's how another seedsaver and I kept afloat a breadseed poppy that enslaved people grew at Jefferson’s Monticello. When I first received seeds for that plant from Seed Savers Exchange member Patrick Holland, he included this letter:

"These seeds come from the poppy original [sic] grown by Thomas Jefferson on his estate in Virginia. It is called "Monticello." I first obtained this seed from a member some years back who, herself, obtained it from Monticello. For some years now the operators of the estate have discontinued its sale. For approximately 5 years, as far as I know, I am one of the only persons (or the only) who possess this seed. It represents an unbroken chain of seed transmission that extends back for over two hundred years. No one should be burdened with bearing that responsibility alone. [. . .] As of this year, there will be only 4 people left with this seed including yourself as one of them. 200 years of living history in 4 [sic] hands." 
I grew these poppies and shared the seed through Seed Savers and my local community, and I bragged about the plants' beauty until it was picked up by fellow gardeners, then by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and now a few other commercial sources, too. The sources have renamed the variety to "Charlottesville Old," but it is the same plant. Holland's effort of maintaing the plant, sharing the seeds with me, and the both of us sharing it and telling other people about it means now lots of people have access to its beauty when it had been almost extinct.

So, since named heirloom sweet peas are harder and harder to find in the US, and because this general area of the country was once a hotbed of sweet pea happiness, I've decided to adopt a variety. I chose Henry Eckford.

I chose this variety because it is orange and I love orange things. It's just a slice more orange than runner bean blossoms but a lot more red than the color of orange fruits. I chose this variety because it is ridiculously fragrant, so much so that I can smell it in my whole garden when it blooms. And I also chose it because the "father of sweet peas," Henry Eckford, felt so connected to this variety that he named it after himself. Eckford released this variety in 1904, so it appears to be one of the last varieties that he developed before he died in 1905. 

I also chose it because there is something about Eckford's story that appeals to me. He started out, like many plantspeople do, by working for other plant geeks before ending up in charge of other plant geeks. He had a two-decade long gig at an estate as a head gardener. But, he still hadn't started developing sweet peas. He didn't start his sweet pea experiments until after his first wife died in childbirth, until he remarried, until after he left a long-held and stable job. He didn't start sweet peas until his world shifted entirely, and he took a job I wonder if he previously had ever imagined:

"In 1878 Eckford was invited to work in the gardens of the lunatic asylum at Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, run by the physician William Henry Octavius Sankey (1814–1889). Sankey was a keen amateur hybridist himself and together they raised seedlings of florist's flowers at Sandywell and then, from 1882, at Boreatton Park, Shropshire, where Sankey moved his asylum." (Urquhart)

He begin his exploration of sweet peas in 1879 (Urquhart). He started the sweet pea developments for which he became famous (2) while he worked with and for a doctor at the "lunatic asylum." There is so much more I want to know about that story.

Eckford's variety "Bronze Prince" was the first to catch the attention of the garden world of the time, and for it, he won a Royal Horticulture Society award in 1882. "Bronze Prince" has disappeared through time and history. There aren't even any images of it ("The Sweet Pea and its King"). By its name alone, "Bronze Prince" sounds like a flower I wish I could have met.

I didn't get to meet "Bronze Prince," but I am lucky to know Henry Eckford's self-named variety. I think I might also know a little something about the man from the plant he chose to name after himself. It's a loud, funny color. It gets sunburned easily. For a sweet pea, it is pretty darn tough, rolling with drought and brushing off the dreaded powdery mildew. It doesn't hide its fragrance, and even though it works well in a vase all by itself, it gets along with others beautifully.

Henry Eckford and white nigella in my grandmother's vase.

Henry Eckford pods, almost dry.

Addendums and Digressions:

1) Ferry-Morse now lists only three sweet peas in its entire catalog, and none of them are either single varieties or heritage varieties. Each is a modern mix. This is particularly sad, especially since the son of Morse (of Ferry Morse), Lester Morse, in 1917 wrote a book detailing the world's varieties of sweet peas, titled Field Notes on Sweet Peas (Taylor). The fact that the company isn't working harder to maintain its own history is such a loss. I don't bemoan the creation of new varieties—that is necessary and important. Instead, the loss of old varieties is what worries me. Old varieties of any plant contains genetic material that we may someday need. And, very important to me, varieties also carry with them stories, and when we lose the variety, we lose the story.

2) Yes, Henry Eckford was relatively famous. It still happens occasionally. Consider Floyd Zaiger, the developer of so many of our modern stone fruits. He said about his releases: “It gives me great satisfaction, far greater than any return on investment, to create something new that gives so many people so much pleasure.” If we lose some of Zaiger's varieties through time, just as we've lost Eckford's, we will similarly lose so much pleasure.


Holland, Patrick. Personal letter. 27 March 2008.

“The Sweet Pea and Its King….” The Gardens Trust, 26 Sept. 2015, https://thegardenstrust.blog/2015/09/26/the-sweet-pea-and-its-king/.

Taylor, Judith. “Sweet Peas in California: A Fragrant but Fading Memory.” Pacific Horticulture, https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/sweet-peas-in-california-a-fragrant-but-fading-memory/. Accessed 30 June 2022.

Urquhart, Suki. “Eckford, Henry.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew et al., Oxford University Press, 2004, p. ref:odnb/96775. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/96775.

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