Gardening 6: 243-244 (May 1, 1898)

Will W. Tracy

American seed growing has developed wonderfully during the past twenty-five years, until now, in spite of the European advantage in experience and in cheap labor, we are producing vegetable seeds which compare favorably both in quality and price with any from abroad. But we have paid little attention to growing flower seeds, the great bulk of those used in this country being imported.

There is, however, an exception in the case of sweet peas, American grown seed of this flower being abundant and cheap, and generally considered the best in quality. The honor for the improvement of the sweet pea has been given to Henry Eckford, of England, and to such an extent that many seem to think that not only were all of our finer sorts originated by him, but that we must depend solely upon him for any further improvement.

I would not speak lightly of, or underestimate Mr. Eckford's work. He has done more to create and develop the modern improved forms of this beautiful flower than any other man; but, while giving him due credit, we ought not to ignore or undervalue the studies and labors of such men as Hutchins, Morse and other American lovers and growers of sweet peas. A collection made up wholly of Eckford's varieties would lack some of the very best kinds in cultivation. He has produced nothing so early and free flowering as the Extra Early Blanche Ferry, nothing of its color so beautiful as Stella Morse. America is the best red striped. Cupid, with all the splendid possibilities of its type promised in Pink Cupid, is an American not an Eckford variety. Blanche Burpee, his best white, is at least equaled by The Bride, and Brilliant is a better red than his Mars. Not only this, but it is a fact that in many cases, after American growers have worked for years to produce and perfect some stock, Eckford has sent out some new variety essentially like it, and, though the American stock was usually the purest and best fixed, and often better in other qualities, it has been unselfishly dropped, rather than add to the confusion of names, and Eckford alone has been given credit for work which was as well done by the American.

So much for the past. As to the future I know that one American is now growing stock of a variety which is as distinct a departure in color as Cupid was in form, being a true blue, a color hitherto unknown in this flower. It is hinted that in the opening year of the twentieth century an American grower will enrich our gardens with an entirely distinct class of half dwarf or bush sweet peas, superior in both beauty and usefulness to either the tall or dwarf sorts.

It has been said that our American sorts are not the result of horticultural skill, but chance sports, the outcome of the large areas planted in this country and the consequent immense number of individual plants produced. But no one who has had an opportunity to know the careful study and earnest work of some of our American growers will deny that their work is well done and worthy of praise. While it perhaps does not illustrate this point, the history of two American sorts may be of interest. Some forty years ago a woman in Northern New York noticed and saved the seed of a particularly bright flowered plant of the old Painted Lady. She planted them in her garden and each succeeding year saved and planted seed of what she thought were the best plants. She did not raise many, some years not more than a dozen plants, and never more than could be grown in three square yards. She was the wife of a quarryman, and her garden was always over limestone ledges, where the soil, though fertile was very thin, often not over a foot in depth, and gradually her plants became more compact and sturdy, until after some ten or twelve years she ceased to "bush" them, simply letting them support themselves. After she had raised them in this way for some twenty-five years a seedsman noticed their beauty, obtained about 100 seeds and from them has come the Blanche Ferry. This poor woman was not a scientist, her little garden and cottage were not at all an ideal trial ground and seed laboratory—but no scientist has suggested a better plan for the development and fixing of the qualities which make the Blanche Ferry the most practically useful variety we have than that which her love for the beautiful and her conditions of life lead to her carrying out so faithfully and patiently. The Extra Early Blanche Ferry was not the result of the selections of the earliest flowers, but it was developed on the theory that the time (from the sowing of the seed) of a plant coming into flower was quite as largely affected by conditions of growth as by constitutional tendency, but that the period in the development of the plant when it first showed bloom was more a matter of constitutional tendency than of growth conditions. Accordingly in breeding for early flowering, plants which produced flowers from the lowest nodes, rather than those which first showed flower, were selected, and the results show the correctness of the theory. It seems to me that what Americans have done in the development of this flower suggests possibilities with others, and that we ought to look forward to the production of our own flower seeds of all kinds.

Sweet Peas Bibliography