Dr L.M. Kilbride

On Sweet Peas


Figure. 1 + 2.

It has become a cliché in garden history of a literary bent to quote from the poetry of John Clare so I shall have to go one better: the seeds pictured here were stolen from the gate of John Clare’s cottage at Helpston in October last year (figure 1.). I was delighted, when they first came up in late late spring, to see that their leaves were short and thin (figure 2.). This confirmed my suspicion (and my hope) that these seeds were taken from an earlier ornamental pea, perhaps Lathyrus latifolius, or broad-leaved pea. Molly Mahood, in her meticulous A John Clare Flora, notes that in July 1825 Clare was ‘himself looking forward to receiving ‘a curious “Everlasting Pea” from the Milton Hall garden’ where Clare had found a friend and correspondent in the Head Gardener, Joseph Henderson. Ornamental peas are useful flowers in a garden, providing colour and height, often used to mark a boundary or form a screen. A very useful flower for a poet too, everlasting pea, since the phrase starts off falling and rises to end on a high. If my guess is correct, then this ornamental pea-vine predates Henry Eckford’s rapid ‘improvement’ of the sister-variety Lathyrus odoratus towards the ‘Grandiflora’ type in the late nineteenth century, a much larger and showier flower than the pea climbing under the window in Clare’s poem ‘The Cross Roads’. Clearly, Adam Frost, who won a Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show for his 2004 Clare-themed Garden ‘The Rural Muse’, now transferred to Clare Cottage, did his research. At some point, when I’m feeling a little less flagrant, I will write to the John Clare Cottage Trust and ask if I have guessed aright.
            I admit that these seeds are stolen: but is it really stealing if you take what overhangs the garden gate? Can you steal in a garden? When, in the first year of the new century, Head Gardener Silas Cole spotted an unusual wavy edge in the sweet pea cross which would become the cultivar ‘Countess Spencer’, he saved five seeds. Three of the seedlings that grew from that one pod were eaten by mice, but from the remaining two he grew enough flowers to exhibit his new strain, which was immediately awarded an RHS First Class Certificate. Ninety further seeds were saved in 1902, which led to a further harvest of three-thousand seeds the following year, two-thousand and two-hundred of which were sent to the US to be bulked up. The garden as a synonym for abundance is no metaphor, but a material fact. To invoke private property in such a setting is in poor taste.
            Jamaica Kincaid, writing on ‘The disturbances of the garden’ in The New Yorker last year, has an astonishing take on the Eden story as a kind of warning. The trouble began on the eighth day, she argues, when loneliness set in—so God made a garden in ‘the classic quadrilinear style that is still a standard in garden design’:

I have since come to see that in the garden itself, throughout human association with it, the Edenic plan works in the same way: the Tree of Life is agriculture and the Tree of Knowledge horticulture. We cultivate food, and when there is a surplus of it, producing wealth, we cultivate the spaces of contemplation, a garden of plants not necessary for physical survival. The awareness of that fact is what gives the garden its special, powerful place in our lives and our imaginations. The Tree of Knowledge holds unknown, and therefore dangerous possibilities; the Tree of Life is eternally necessary, and the Tree of Knowledge is deeply and divinely dependent on it. This is not a new thought for me. I could see it in my mother’s relationship to the things she grew, the kind of godlike domination she would display over them. She, I remember, didn’t make such fine distinctions, she only moved the plants around when they pleased her and destroyed them when they fell out of favour.

If the shift from agriculture to horticulture which Kincaid detects in the Eden myth is a move from the necessary to the unnecessary, from subsistence to surplus, then it is a short step from surplus to ownership. To talk about stealing in a garden is to replay the Fall. And yet, as Kincaid suggests, paradise as a place of escape, free from economic constraint, remains one of the fantasies of the garden.

Figure. 3.

This fantasy is especially strong in the case of the sweet pea, the popularity of which is entirely attributable to brute economic fact: Charles J. Unwin’s seed-trading empire, described by The Times as ‘one of the most familiar features of Britain’s horticultural landscape’, was built upon the single waved edge of a freak sweet pea ‘sport’ his father William found in his hedge in Histon, Cambridgeshire, one Sunday morning after church. He called it ‘Gladys Unwin’ after his eldest daughter (figure 3.). In 1986 Charles Unwin junior, pressed to account for the sweet pea’s continuing popularity, observed that: ‘Nowadays the average amateur grower has little time to give to a flower which only blooms for a few days in the year […] they must be prolific over a lengthy period, and must respond in no half-hearted manner to any extra attention he may give them. If they are as decorative in the home as in the garden, so much the better […] there seems no likelihood of any other annual taking its place in the great heart of the flower-loving public for many years to come.’ Today, sweet peas remain the annual of choice for the precarious, the time-pressed, and the millennials just getting into gardening for the first time. Which is how I first got into sweet peas, watching my boyfriend raising these fragile heavily-scented flowers in the rubble-strewn yard of his rented house off Mill Road, Cambridge. Now John Clare’s everlasting peas sit on the ledge of our rented balcony garden, faintly ridiculous in their willow-work support, marking my own garden boundary and providing a not very effectual divide from the terraced houses which overlook almost everything we do. Climbing up this unstable boundary between reality and illusion, sweet peas are compelling symbols, troubling any clear distinction between use and exchange value; between the wild and the tame; and the boundary between the gardens of the rich and of the poor.
            Richard Mabey, in the introduction to his magnificent The Cabaret of Plants (2015), points to a UN report which describes the earth’s flora as ‘the economy’s primary producer’, and finds it odd that we haven’t regained our ‘ancient sense of wonder’ at the sheer variety and ingenuity of plant life. His solution to this conundrum—that perhaps we ‘find it hard to accept that plants don’t need us in the way we need them’—only gets us so far. In Marx’s theory of the commodity, the idea of the ‘use value’ of a thing is only really defined by its opposite—its exchange value—to show that the usefulness of a commodity bears no rational relationship to the price it will fetch on the market. In the current economic situation, Eden fallen in advanced style, this paradox has calcified still further: flora, our primary producer, is either entirely useful or entirely superfluous—and in either category there is no idea of an interrelationship between plants and people.
            Yet sweet peas are an unusual kind of product—even by the standard of the weirdness of commodities. An ornamental pea-vine overhanging a garden gate or trained up a trellis takes the place of an actual edible pea. In this sense, they are the floricultural equivalent of a lawn, flaunting their tender’s leisure, a pitch at a life beyond subsistence.  In their climbing habit and the shape of their flowers, sweet peas look a lot like garden peas before fruiting. It is perhaps because of this similarity that the Dig For Victory campaign during the Second World War made an exception for sweet peas. As Margaret Willes argues in The Gardens of the British Working Class (2014), with every square inch of ground needed for food security, the Ministry of Food destroyed over a century of amateur and professional flower shows by cultivating the idea that growing flowers during wartime was unpatriotic. Yet for C. H. Middleton, author of the popular guide Your Garden in War-time (1941), sweet peas are an exception. The garden must be devoted to ‘good crops’, ‘with the possible exception of a row of sweet peas. Hitler or no Hitler, war or no war, I’m going to grow a few bunches of sweet peas next summer […] Very naughty of me, perhaps, but I had none last summer and I missed them terribly’.
            To encounter a pea-vine and re-realise that it is not an edible, but an ornamental, is to witness subsistence turning into pleasure, use-value towards exchange. And yet, though the seeds have been traded widely, sweet pea flowers travel badly. This means that sweet peas will only ever be bought as a cut flower at the garden gate, with the possible exception of the US flower-market where there has been more continued cultivation of dwarf varieties, which fare somewhat better. The sweet pea appeals, not just as an escape from subsistence, but something that can only be grown and traded locally. The labour of growing them is therefore less abstractable than it might be for other cut flowers that have featured in the market garden, such as tulips, dahlias, or pinks. Grown for pleasure, and not for potage, and for the kitchen table, rather than market, there is no other annual which presents the grower with the fantasy or promise of their own non-abstracted labour in quite the same way as the sweet pea.
            ‘Homegrown’ though they may appear, all registered Lathyrus odoratus are descended from a wild pea recorded in 1695 by a Franciscan monk, Francisco Cupani, then head of the Botanical Garden in Misilmeri, about nine miles outside Palermo. Graham Rice, in his wonderful The Sweet Pea Book (2003), notes that it isn’t known whether the seeds Cupani later sent to teacher Robert Uvedale in Enfield in 1699, were collected within or without the garden walls. I saw them growing on the slopes leading up to the Castellacio de Montecaputo, a monastery turned fortification turned picturesque ruin, in 2017, despite Unwin’s assertion in 1986 that they are no longer seen in the wild. Sweet peas present one of the most rapidly hybridized flowers in floricultural history—from 1 to over 4000 named cultivars in 186 years—and that’s just the cultivars which were recognised and named at Unwin’s count in 1986. The narrow-leaved everlasting pea which John Clare was eagerly looking forward to in 1825 hints that the rise of the sweet pea was anticipated by a desire for other varieties of ornamental pea. Clare noted its similarity to meadow vetchling, Lathyrus pratensis, a fact which suggests some of the appeal of this earlier ornamental pea was its similarity to wild, hedgerow flowers. Yet though the appeal of sweet peas as a wildish plant has recently come full circle, it has taken two hundred years to do so.

Figure. 4.

From the seeds received by Uvedale, growers concentrated first on extending the range of the colour of the original purple and blue flower towards red, white and pink, and then on increasing the size of the flowers and the number of flowers on one stem, to produce the grandiflora type. This flower, which looks more akin to an orchid than the original pea, was all the rage in the Edwardian era. The waved-edge of the Spencer-type, ‘discovered’ in 1901, and fixed by Unwin, then took the lead. Specialists have since developed dwarf varieties more suitable for bedding, an odd development for a plant which evolved to trail along the ground, and when cultivated, can climb to two metres or more. The search is now on for a yellow sweet pea. Led by Keith Hammett in New Zealand, sweet pea specialists are trying to cross existing cultivars with another, yellow variety of Laythrus, Lathyrus belinensis, ‘discovered’ in Turkey in 1987. It seems that in order to innovate, hybridists are being forced  beyond the garden. Perhaps inspired by this truism, Hammett went back to Sicily in the 1970s to collect wild seed. These are now available under the name ‘Original’ or ‘Cupani’s Original’, now also available from Unwins (figure 4.) ‘Now you can grow a piece of history!’ Rice suggests that ‘If you want to grow the true wild sweet pea, this is it.’ Although, as even this extremely quick history shows, sweet peas blur the boundary between the wild and the tame.
            Sweet peas also explode another garden-history cliché which is also a cliché of the commodity culture: the assumption that most flowers which amateur gardeners grow today were first trialled in the gardens of the rich, eventually filtering down to the gardens of the poor. Unlike other flowers which underwent rapid hybridisation in the nineteenth century, such as pelargoniums, sweet peas could be grown outside of glass houses, and so were as likely to be developed by amateurs as professionals. Between Head Gardener Silas Cole, who first developed the Spencer-type of sweet pea but could not get it to breed true, and seed-monger William Unwin, who did, there remains the unwritten history of a third, waved pea, discovered by amateur Richard Viner in Wem, Shropshire. Unwin’s claim, in his 1986 book on sweet peas, that ‘it is not clear what happened to the Wem selection’ does not fit with Rice’s later history, which records how Viner sold his plant to Henry Eckford, who had developed the Grandiflora type in the previous decades. Viner’s pea ‘Nellie Viner’, is recorded as a named cultivar, as is the fact that the National Sweet Pea society raised a subscription for him, when, ten years after his discovery, Viner’s health was failing. Rice reflects that ‘it seems extraordinary that this break should occur in three different places, originating in two different ways […] and resulting in three different forms at almost exactly the same time.’ Extraordinary indeed, but the marketisation of the discovery which followed is entirely within expectations.
            That sweet peas were being widely and seriously grown by non-specialists is brought home when, in 1911, the Daily Mail held a national Sweet Pea competition, receiving a staggering thirty-five thousand entries. The first prize of £1000 went, not to a seed-specialist, nor a Head Gardener, but an amateur: Mrs Denholm Fraser of Kelso (her husband, the Reverend Denholm Fraser, came third). If my reading of Gregory Clark’s ‘Graph of Changing Money Values, 1660-2020’ is right, then that’s about three-hundred and fifty to four-hundred thousand pounds in today’s money, the cash price of a fairly sizeable house outside the South East of England today. Wouldn’t you have been tempted to have a go?
            Sweet peas, like the nineteenth-century gardener, have class mobility. It is entirely appropriate that when, in Adrian Bell’s 1931 memoir of farming, Silver Ley, the narrator happens to meet with his family’s backhouse boy, George, now risen to be Head Gardener at a local estate, it is a bouquet of sweet peas that he wears in his buttonhole:

George, by self help and the books we gave him, thrived. When next I saw him after he left Groveside, at a June show, he was wearing a sprig of sweet-peas in his buttonhole with even more blooms on one stalk than ever before—it was like a bouquet and impeded the movement of his head, but was generally admired by the expert. ‘Did you grow them yourself?’ asked one. I heard him reply with dignity, ‘I never wear anything I don’t grow myself.’

Like his pea-vines, then, George is class-mobile, a Victorian ideal yet still active in the 30s.
            Sweet peas are not just ripe for stealing, then, but for metaphor. A material-dialectical aesthetics of sweet peas could tell us much about the imaginary—to borrow Cornelius Castoriadis’ much overused term—that gardens present in our current economic situation, which is always-already an environmental situation. Yet here we are again at risk of slipping into a cliché. When garden historians of a literary bent consider plants, it often only goes one way. There is the plant, and then there is what the writer or artist has done with the plant.
            In this hybrid, x marks the spot. Yet there is something more reciprocal in the dialectical relationship between nature and art which this way of looking at plant life overlooks, which has to do with the interrelation between the natural, the arti-factual and what I’m going to call—for want of a better word—the arti-natural.
            In reaching for this term, I am struggling to name a basic difference between the making of artifactual objects, and the composition of gardens, which are also made, yet not quite objects. Put another way, and in Kincaidian terms: gardens disturb us, because they are also living, and in the fact of their being alive, they expose the behavioural pattern of our own domination. From the professional hybridist on a quest for the yellow version of a known flower, to those first sweet peas raised in our Ross Street garden, the sweet pea, like the artifact, is something we make happen, but it is also alive. In trying to think with the word ‘artinatural’, I’m aware of a double strain of not only trying to resurrect a word designated ‘rare, now historical’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, but to turn it inside out. Previously the ‘artinatural’ was in use in landscape gardening, for example, in the writings of Batty Langley, to describe an artificial imitation of nature which, in re-presenting nature, depends for its success on hiding the fact of human intervention. Instead, what I really need is a name for gardens as natural creations—in which the sweet pea is one composite part—which can reveal a trace of our interventions in the natural world. Re-presentation is not all, in the garden. Yet this is something which philosophical aesthetics, and even Marx, despite being alive to the phantom-like life of the commodity, has consistently ignored.
            From Kant to Adorno, making artefacts tends to involve the arrangement of so much inert matter. For Kant in The Third Critique, the garden is a formative art, which leads us to make aesthetic judgements, dividing painting into ‘that of a beautiful depiction of nature, and that of a beautiful arrangement of its products. The first is painting proper, the second is landscape gardening.’ Yet the latter, because it plays with the ‘semblance of utility’, ranks with ornament, interior design and women’s dress: ‘a parterre of various flowers, a room with a variety of ornaments (including even the ladies’ attire) go to make at a festive gathering a sort of picture’. In this section, and the footnotes which defend his decision to group landscape gardening with painting, it becomes apparent that Kant is drawing an equivalence between them on the understanding that, though gardening ‘takes its forms bodily from nature’, both landscape gardening and the plastic arts express ideas, in a way analogous to speech and gesture. Both are in keeping with ‘a very common play of our fantasy that attributes to lifeless things a spirit suitable to their form, and that uses them as its mouthpiece.’ In other words, we arrange dead things, which speak for us. Yet only a thinker dead to the life and liveliness of plants can view nature and the representation of nature to be the same thing.
            In Honey From A Weed (1986), Patience Gray observes how Greek farmers, having ploughed a field to plant onions, make a geometric pattern with a mattock. The women follow after, planting the bulbs in the furrow, before the water is pumped in. This shape, she discovers, ‘was the Greek key pattern painted on so many Attic jars, a graphic, indeed didactic, reminder of the most cunning and economical way of directing water’s flow. This alone I think is a clue to understanding symbols which, long before the invention of writing, were a means of communicating knowledge.’ It’s an unusual definition of a symbol, I grant you—but the reason the key pattern on vases remains compelling is because of its relationship to agricultural practice, not because of its representation of a shape made by human being engaged in planting onions. Reality and representation are not equivalent. Painting a sweet pea, or describing it in a novel, or reducing it to a series of lines which will tessellate as wallpaper is not the same as dominating a plant by hybridising it.
            Adorno, in his Aesthetic Theory, is, of course, alive to Kant’s mistake and even motivated by it. The whole book—dictated and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1969—is an enquiry into the possibility of art’s redemptive power against the rule of instrumental reason which dominates our lives. Because art dominates its subject and its materials, without actually dominating anything, art can expose the dominating logic of capitalist society, rehearsing it without actually going through with it. ‘That artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood except in that their own dynamic, their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it.’ Art resembles domination, he claims, but without going through with it: no sweet peas were harmed in the writing of this poem. Yet, when he comes to the question of our domination of nature, as opposed to our representations of it, gardens do not feature. Instead, how we look at nature, and how we look at art, are two extremes of a dialectical whole, shaping and shaped by the other: ‘Wholly artifactual, the artwork seems to be the opposite of what is not made, nature. As pure antitheses, however, each refers to the other: nature to the experience of a mediated and objectified world, the artwork to nature as the mediated plenipotentiary of immediacy.’ He concludes that ‘reflection on natural beauty is irrevocably requisite to the theory of art.’ Yet gardening—a space in which the artifactual and the natural collide—has no place in his dialectic. Perhaps this is testament to the mid-century garden as a return to the artificial or wild landscape, or because he saw gardening as another species of ‘hobby’ with which we fritter away our supposed ‘free time’—though, gardening does not appear in his late essay on that subject.
            And yet, it is hard to think of a mediation of reality which more readily demonstrates Adorno’s argument for the redemptive power which art promises in an enlightened age than gardening. It is the only plastic art that directly disrupts our tendency to see the composite materials as just material. In doing so, it asks for a response, a relation. It is this which gives psychoanalysis its edge over aesthetics in acknowledging the artinatural. Working within models of relationality, it remains grounded in the real while allowing for phantoms, phantasms, fantasy.
            The breeding and hybridisation of sweet peas is just one aspect of that aspect of human behaviour which psychoanalyst Sue Stuart-Smith, in her 2020 book The Well-gardened Mind, explores in detail. For her there is a direct and obvious connection between D. W. Winnicott and Marion Milner’s development of the idea of play—in which children come up against the resistance of the world, and in so doing, are gently disillusioned of their belief that they are the masters of their reality—and gardening. ‘In the husbandry of seeds and the interaction between mind and nature that is involved’, she argues, we can again experience something of this illusion. ‘Making things grow has a kind of mystery to it and we can claim some of that mystery for ourselves. We even have a name for the illusion we are describing, for it is the human talent for growing that we call ‘green fingers’. This illusion is, I think, central to the vital connection that exists between people and plants and contributes to the enormous satisfaction we derive from making things happen and the joy we can feel in being a cause.’ In the back and forth between nurturing and watching our care bear fruit, but also in the frustration of our hopes, when plants—no matter how much you read or rethink—refuse to take, or go on growing, we learn again the lesson we hope that we learnt as children: the world is not all our own, but something we are involved with and must respond to. The garden, as an artinatural space, teaches non-domination, not just by re-presenting the logic of capitalism, as Adorno suggests, or by the free play of the imagination, as Kant describes, but by its resistance to domination: sweet peas or pelargoniums ‘revert’; a rose ‘shoots into briar’.

Figure. 5.

When Countess Spencer, the first ‘waved’ variety of sweet pea, won that first class certificate at the first ever NSPS show in 1901, reports were hard-pressed to describe the development they were witnessing (figure 5.). Graham Rice quotes one reporter in raptures: ‘It seemed as if nature has been so lavish that the material in its standard had to be closely pleated to hold it in position. It was beflowered and befrilled.’ The repeated be- prefix, as if the petals are taking form before our eyes, and the appeal to the labour-intensive art of dress-making, suggest the ways in which the sweet pea has become artinatural, not through its description or representation in literature, but by the back and forth between human life and plant life in artificial natural spaces. Yet unlike Kant’s ‘ladies’ attire’, described in The Third Critique, the wonder of this sweet pea is that is at once so apparently artificial, and yet so undeniably alive. Against the total sway of instrumental reason, then, we must place, not only art, and its dominance of nature as Adorno suggests, but also our dominance of plant life on its way to becoming artifact. The garden may be Eden, but as Kincaid points out, the garden in Genesis was also created as a response to loneliness.