Sweet Pea Flower Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance

“Hey, sweet pea” is an expression we’ve all grown up hearing. But few of us have actually spent time thinking about where this phrase actually came from. In the language of flowers, the sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) holds the symbolic meaning of blissful pleasure. Its upright, clumping flower clusters symbolize good wishes, friendship, kindness, and goodbyes. Many believe these blooms leave a positive sentiment and a thoughtful way to say thank you as they further symbolize gratitude. Sweet peas are also the official birth flower for April.

Colorful sweet pea flowers in bloom

Etymological Meaning

The sweet pea plant’s taxonomic name derives from the Greek word “Lathyros,” which directly translates to pea or pulse, and the Latin word “odoratus,” meaning fragrant. The latter is due to its strong scent when in bloom, which is one of the most powerful among flowers. Note that Lathyrus odoratus is spelled a little differently from its root Greek word.

The Victorian Language of Flowers

According to legend, a Sicilian monk sent the Mediterranean-born sweet pea to England shortly after finding it. Sweet peas have starred in English botany ever since, especially during Henry Eckford’s late Victorian era and the classical period of floriography.

In the Victorian language of flowers, sweet peas symbolized departure, goodbyes, and blissful pleasure, making them a thoughtful addition to farewell gifts or to express appreciation for a joyful time.

People have developed the language of flowers over centuries – millennia, even. Red is often associated with romance, though also with courage and strength. Purple means royalty, while blue creates relaxation and pink is playful. 

Color Symbolism

Sweetpea is available in almost any flower color of the floral rainbow. That includes:

  • Red
  • Pink
  • Lavender
  • Purple
  • White
  • Peach
  • Salmon
  • Cream
  • Periwinkle
  • Light Blue
  • Fuchsia
  • Burgundy

… and more. One color that isn’t available is yellow. The yellow sweet pea shares the fate of the blue rose. It still eludes cultivators to this day.

Some florists address the problem by dying flowers. This process involves watering neutral-colored plants, like white or ivory, with a yellow solution. The plants pull the solution up through their stems, and it enters the bloom, coloring it.

April Birth Month Flower

The tradition of birth flowers is thought to have originated in ancient Rome, where flowers were given as gifts to celebrate birthdays and other special events. Each month was associated with a particular flower, believed to hold specific characteristics or powers that would be imparted to people born in that month.

The sweet pea, alongside the daisy, is one of two official birth month flowers for April.

French Culture

A vase of fresh cut sweet pea flowers

In France, sweet peas have a long-held association with brides. Giving her sweet peas is meant to symbolize good luck on her wedding day and in her marriage.

Suitable Gifting Occasions

One can give sweet peas all the time. Popular occasions include a birthday flower in April, gestures of friendship, and farewell messages. 

Sweet peas complement other flowers well. Their upright growth habit also makes them a good cut flower for bouquets. You can put them in vases and bouquets, as well as more elaborate arrangements.

Sweet Peas in Art and Literature

Sweet peas, with their delicate beauty and fragrant blooms, have inspired various references in art and literature.

Sweet peas symbolize blissful pleasure, delicate pleasures, and farewells, as their blooming season is brief. For instance, in John Keats’s poem, “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” the sweet pea is mentioned in a long list of flowers to describe the rich diversity of the natural world.

Sweet peas have also been included in floral paintings, botanical illustrations, and decorative arts, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the interest in detailed depictions of flowers was at its peak. Artists like Pierre-Joseph Redouté and other botanical illustrators of the 18th and 19th centuries included sweet peas in their works.

Sweet peas also found their way into the decorative arts, particularly in the Art Nouveau movement, where natural forms and flowers were a central motif.

Fun Facts About Sweet Peas

Sweet pea flowers, with their captivating fragrance and array of vibrant colors, offer a wealth of interesting attributes. Here are some fun facts about these charming blooms:

  1. Historical Introduction: Sweet peas were first brought to the attention of the gardening world in the 17th century by a Sicilian monk named Francisco Cupani. He sent the seeds to England, where they quickly gained popularity for their beauty and scent.
  2. Wide Color Palette: Sweet peas come in a wide range of colors, including shades of pink, purple, white, and red.
  3. Fragrance: Sweet peas are renowned for their lovely fragrance, which has made them a favorite in perfumery and scented garden designs.
  4. Genetic Breakthrough: The sweet pea played a significant role in the early study of genetics and heredity. In the early 20th century, the geneticist Reginald Punnett used sweet peas in his experiments, leading to the discovery of genetic linkage.
  5. Edible Peas? While sweet peas are related to the garden pea, their seeds are toxic and should not be eaten.
  6. Royal Patronage: Sweet peas have enjoyed the patronage of royalty and were particularly favored by Queen Victoria. Their association with the upper class contributed to their popularity in ornamental gardening during the Victorian era.
  7. Guinness World Record: The sweet pea has made its way into the Guinness World Record books with the world’s longest sweet pea flower stem, recorded at over 6 feet tall!

Sweet Pea: The Best New Blossom in Your Life

While this flowering plant isn’t as widely used for food and drink as some flowers, it’s an incredibly versatile flower for arrangements and bouquets, thanks to its rich meaning and symbolism in the language of flowers.

Editorial Director | andrew@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.

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