Botanists first described the sweet pea in the 1700s. For nearly a century sweet peas were only available in a handful of colors, revolving around purples, reds and white. Finally, in the 1800s, sweet pea popularity soared as growers developed larger, more colorful varieties. Later, ruffled sweet peas favored size and color over scent, but modern breeders are developing sweet peas with size, scent and intense, new colors. However, a true yellow sweet pea does not yet exist.
Purples and Blues
The original sweet pea, 'Cupani,' has a purple upper petal and blue wings. This small, bright variety is named after Francisco Cupani, an Italian monk, who wrote about the fragrant plant in 1695. Many variations, including the mottled “flaked” varieties, descend from 'Cupani.' The flaked maroon 'Senator' sweet pea, the lavender 'Frank Dolby' and the icy blue 'Oban Bay' demonstrate the range of colors in the blue and purple range. Dark blue sweet peas are uncommon, according to “The Sweet Pea Book,” but 'Oxford Blue' is a recent, deeply colored addition.
Reds, Pinks and Oranges
From the original handful of available colors in the red spectrum, Henry Eckford introduced the deep scarlet 'Queen Alexandra' and the crimson 'King Edward' in the 1800s. Pink sweet peas are very common and include the pale pink 'Countess Spencer,' 'Prima Donna' and the two-toned 'Painted Lady.' In the warmer tones of the red family lie the salmon 'Lisbeth' and the rich 'Henry Eckford,' which holds its orange-red color high above the plant.
Whites and Creams
White sweet peas, like the scented 'Dorothy Eckford,' often make cream varieties look dingy. However, the cream 'Juliet' has a slight pink blush and makes a pleasing complement to white flowers. Bi-colored sweet peas usually have white lower petals, while the upper petals are pigmented.
In New Zealand, Dr. Keith Hammett developed the scented 'Streamers' sweet peas and other never-before-seen colors. 'Streamers' sweet pea flowers are striped in white, with a base color of orange, blue, red or chocolate. 'Saltwater Taffy Swirls' has pastel colors and white stripes. 'Almost Black' appears ebony under indoor lighting, and 'Blue Shift' changes color from magenta to ultramarine as the flower ages.