A diversity of peas. These are all heritage types which I grew in my garden in 2007.
Top row, left to right: Corne de Belier, Salmon-Flowered, Ne Plus Ultra.
Middle row: Golden Sweet, Magnum Bonum, Kent Blue.
Bottom row: Champion of England, Carruthers' Purple Podded, Alderman.
Probably the first named variety of pea was the Hastings, which has its earliest reference in a poem of the mid-1400s, followed a century or so later by the Rouncival which sprung from the Hospital garden of St. Mary of Roncesvalles in Charing Cross. But for many centuries peas were primarily an agricultural crop, and didn't feature significantly among garden vegetables. They were also subject to a class divide, young green peas being mostly the reserve of the wealthy, while ordinary people had to make do with the starchy over-mature stuff, or dried peas boiled into soup and pease pudding.
The early varieties were probably quite coarse by today's standards, closely derived from the field pea. Sweeter and more refined peas made their way to England from the continent in the mid-17th century. These would mainly have been French varieties, as the French had made huge advances in pea breeding at that time, plus the highly expensive Sandwich pea which originated in Holland and was established in the town of Sandwich by Dutch settlers. By the early 18th century the pea had become a popular garden plant and a fashionable delicacy, and new varieties proliferated.
They proliferated so much, in fact, that it all got pointless and confusing. Dozens of new varieties were almost impossible to tell apart. Richard Bradley, writing in 1724, complains "I have often wonder'd at the Indiscretion of some People, who Delight in giving cramp Names to Plants, and make it their Business to multiply Species without Reason, as if a Fruit would be the better for a Name." Nevertheless the trend continued and reached a peak in the mid- to late 19th century. By this time peas were so popular that vegetable seed catalogues featured them in pride of place at the top of the list, with all the other vegetables listed alphabetically behind them.
Ironically it was during this boom period that almost all of the older pea varieties were lost, including the Rouncival, the Sandwich, the Spanish morotto and a once ubiquitous English early-maturing type called the Hotspur. So great was the demand for the new sweeter varieties, the centuries-old staples just disappeared. In 1855 Charles McIntosh regards the Charlton Hotspur (sounds more like a football team than a vegetable) in his Book of the Garden as "too well known to require description, having been in cultivation for upwards of a century." Yet within a couple of decades it had vanished forever.
Catalogues and books of that period don't always mention the colours of flowers or pods, but generally the newer more refined peas were white-flowered. Older varieties of pea were more likely to have bi-colour pink and maroon flowers, showing their descent from the coarse and starchy field pea. Even today, I've yet to find a bi-coloured pea which tastes as sweet as a white-flowered (though I find the bi-colour ones have other good qualities uniquely their own).
If the pea was the must-have vegetable of 19th century England and the seed-buying public couldn't get enough of it, there was no shortage of dodgy seed merchants looking to cash in on it. Fancy new names were given to existing varieties to give them more market appeal, and miniscule variations of type were launched as brand new varieties. Deceptions really came to a head with the arrival of the Egyptian or Mummy Pea, which claimed to have been grown from seeds found inside a hermetically-sealed jar taken from an Egyptian mummy-pit, and preserved in a viable condition for 3000 years. Excited customers who paid a premium for this amazing rarity were rather deflated to find it was strangely identical to the bog-standard British marrowfat pea they were already growing in their gardens.
By 1850 the Royal Horticultural Society had had enough and conducted its own trials. In their experimental gardens Mr Thompson collected together 235 popular varieties and carefully grew them under controlled conditions. From those 235 he concluded that only 27 could realistically be described as distinct and useful varieties, and of those 27, only 11 were really worth growing.
This is the list of the final eleven, taken from Charles McIntosh's The Book of the Garden:
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1. Prince Albert — From 2 and a half to 3 feet, according to soil; a white-seeded pea, forming with Kent's early, early hero, early Warwick, early May, and a lot of others, a section of which the true early frame is the type, and comprising our earliest sorts; moderate croppers; pods contain from eight to ten peas each.
2. D'Auvergne — 4 feet; seeds white; remarkable for its long crooked pods, and the great number of moderate sized peas each pod contains; one of our best for second or general crops. This is identical with Richardson's eclipse and Torwoodlea, two Scotch synonymes.
3. Dancer's monasterу — 4 and a half feet; seeds white; a good profitable sort for a second or general crop; peas of moderate size, rather above medium.
4. Bishop's new long pod — 2 feet; seeds white. A most abundant bearer, producing a succession of pods during most of the pea season. Like all dwarf peas of its class, it requires a rich soil, and from 4 to 6 inches between the seed in the line. We have had this pea producing a good supply for three months in succession. It is one of the most valuable sorts for small gardens, and for domestic use: its only fault in large establishments is the large size of the peas, but, although disliked by cooks on that account, it is much prized by them for many purposes. It originated with the late Mr David Bishop, author of "Casual Botany," and is a hybrid between Bishop's early dwarf, a pea of only 1 foot in height, and one of the marrowfats, carrying in itself the characters of both its parents.
5. Fairbeard's surprise — 5 and a half feet; seed bluish; a profitable sort for a second or general crop. Pods thick, roundish, containing from seven to nine peas of excellent quality; the same as Fairbeard's early surprise.
6. Victoria marrow — 5 and a half to 6 feet; seed bluish; an excellent sort for a general crop. Pods nearly 4 inches long, generally in pairs, containing from seven to eight large peas each; one of our very best peas.
7. Bedman's imperial —3 feet; seed large; bluish green; called also Bedman's dwarf imperial; very similar to Flack's dwarf victory; perhaps scarcely worth growing as distinct sorts. Very prolific; peas large; excellent for green-pea soup.
8. Flack's new large victory — Seed large; bluish green; 3 feet. Mr Thompson makes this distinct from the last. It seems to us to be a distinction without a difference. There would be, however, no loss in growing both these excellent peas under different names—much less, at least, than scores of others. Pease generally six in a pod, and of excellent quality.
9. Knight's tall marrow —6 to 7 feet ; seed large ; wrinkled or indented when dry; white. Often called Knight's tall white marrow, to distinguish it from Knight's tall green marrow. Originated with the late Mr T. A. Knight (vide sect. PROPAGATION BY SEED). Very much esteemed for its productiveness and fine flavour. Like all the tall marrows, only fit for a large garden, and then to be grown in single rows, at a great distance apart. Adapted for general crops. Pods large—from seven to nine peas in each; known also as Knight's late, Knight's tall green marrow, Knight's tall blue marrow.
10. Fairbeard's champion of England—5 to 6 feet ; seed large ; wrinkled when dry ; bluish green. One of the best of the wrinkled marrows, and well adapted for general crops, as well as early ones, being about as early as the Charlton. From seven to eight large peas in a pod.
11. Knight's dwarf marrow — 3 to 4 feet. There are two varieties of Knight's dwarf marrow, differing, we think, only in the colour of the dried seed, the one being white, the other greenish. However, either is valuable for a general crop. The bluish green variety appears to be preferred by Mr Thompson. Like all the marrows, the seeds are large. Pods large, containing six peas in each, and of excellent flavour; quite sugary.
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To the best of my knowledge, Prince Albert and Champion of England are the only ones that have survived to the present day. They're both very rare and can only be obtained through seed savers organisations.
McIntosh conducted his own trials in the large gardens of Dalkeith House in 1850 and 1851, comparing 100 varieties, and finding 23 worthy of mention. Even in those days, the commercial varieties involved a trade-off in flavour: "Bishop's new long-podded, Thurstone's reliance, Hair's dwarf mammoth— all first-class pease for profitable culture—must not be calculated upon to afford a supply for mouths genteel." His results are attached below in a separate post, listing all the varieties he considered to be worthy and all those he thought were duplicates. Sadly only a tiny handful of the peas he describes are still known to be in existence.
"There is one section of garden pease called sugar-pease, the pods of which have the inner film wanting, or much less tough than usual. The pods in this section are used with the young seed within them, and are cooked and eaten the same as French or kidney beans." Mangetout and sugarsnap peas were not then in general usage, being considered too tender for the British climate, but McIntosh noted their benefits and recommended that they should be widely adopted.
Most of the tall varieties of pea have disappeared from today's catalogues, because tall peas are no use to farmers, and farmers are the main focus for seed companies. (If you thought the varieties sold in garden centres were actually designed for gardeners ... er ... I'm afraid that just doesn't happen.) Some of the worthy types from the late 19th century, like Magnum Bonum, Laxton's Exquisite, Duke of Albany, Alderman, Lincoln and the Gladstone have survived through the efforts of gardeners and seed saver organisations, but most of the peas McIntosh was evaluating in the 1850s have simply vanished.
But are all these lost varieties totally gone? They may have disappeared from the catalogues, but diligent gardeners have always saved their own seed and some of the long-vanished types (or at least derivatives of them) may have survived in the hands of individuals. I've been thinking about this a lot as I continue to collect amazing and unusual peas from the Heritage Seed Library. Many of the vegetables offered by the HSL are of unknown provenance. They're often named after the person who donated them or the locality they've been grown in. Very often there's no known history behind them, other than the last couple of generations of gardeners. I'm convinced that some of them are survivors or derivatives of older types which have officially been "lost".
Blue flowers and scimitar-shaped pods of Kent Blue
Take Kent Blue for example. Donated to the Heritage Seed Library by a family from Sevenoaks in Kent who had grown them since the 1940s, this pea is of unknown origin but looks to me like a relic of a very old variety. It's clearly related to the field pea with its small blue flowers and strange knobbly pods, which grow in a scimitar-shape and sometimes buckle and twist as the peas swell. You can see from the photo at the top of this post that its seeds are very distinctive. Tiny and round, variably coloured and heavily speckled with midnight blue. It really is very unlike all other garden peas, even the Victorian ones. Scimitar-podded peas were, however, well known in England for many centuries before being "lost" in the late Victorian era.
Likewise the bizarre Salmon Flowered pea occasionally offered by the HSL (unnamed and of unknown origin) may be descended from an earlier sort. Its broad thick stem and funny little bunches of pods all growing in a tuft at the top of the plant look totally unlike any other pea I've ever seen. But this type of "tufted" or "crowned" pea was apparently quite popular in the 17th century.
Salmon Flowered, bearing all its flowers at the top.
Matching up the HSL's unnamed survivors with earlier named varieties is probably impossible to do with any degree of certainty. But in a sense it doesn't really matter. If a variety is still carrying on some of the genes from earlier lost varieties then it's still contributing some vitally important biodiversity. Peas in particular are not renowned for their diversity (compared with things like tomatoes and beans which come in various shapes and colours) so anything which shows itself to be different from the homogenised commercial pea is a thing to be nurtured and appreciated.