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Sweet Peas in California: A Fragrant but Fading Memory

Articles: Sweet Peas in California: A Fragrant but Fading Memory

W Atlee Burpee (l) and Henry Eckford (r), two early sweet pea breeders, pictured in Burpee’s 1929 Garden Annual. Photograph courtesy Lompoc Valley and Horticultural Society

This year is a centennial of sorts: in 1907, sweet peas were first grown in California’s Central Coast valleys on an agricultural scale. A visitor asked a Lompoc farmer, Robert Rennie, to grow them. The region’s rich soil and benign climate were ideal for growing the flowers; wind and fog from the Pacific Ocean cooled the worst of the summer heat. Rennie planted sweet peas on half an acre of his ranch, which is now part of Lompoc’s town center.

Within two years W Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia set up shop in Lompoc. Sweet peas were one of his principal crops. Some of his seed had been developed by the Reverend Lewis Routzahn in the late 1880s, working at the ranch of his father-in-law, TH McClure. Other seed growers followed soon after.

Although Lompoc came to be known as the sweet pea “capital,” the flowers were also cultivated on a large scale in other California agricultural valleys. As far back as the 1890s, English growers were s...

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