I wonder what is fact and what is fiction. Was there really a talented gardener who improved the sweet pea for her own pleasure whose work was used by the professional seedsman to launch a "new" variety?
This dedication from Sweet Peas for Profit: Cultivation-- under Glass and Outdoors includes only two sentences! (This was written before E. B. White and Mr. Strunk took the world in hand.)
TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN
To the persevering working woman who, by 25 years patient and persistent selection and loving regard, was the means of extracting for the use of succeeding florists, the early flowering and bright and beautiful sweet pea, known as Blanche Ferry.
Her name is not known; whether she yet lives is unknown: but she was the instrument quite as truly as others who have followed her whose names are emblazoned on the horticultural scroll of fame have been instrumental in perfecting the present day race of early flowering or winter sweet peas by providing to the hands of the hybridizers of more recent years the great American variety already mentioned, and made it possible to express from it the wonderful flowers whose colors and fragrance and elegance delight us at Christmas and please us when the lakes are frozen and the snow lies deep.
More information from Sweet peas for Profit:
Some 55 years ago she procured seeds of a bright flowered plant of Painted Lady, and for many years thereafter she sowed and selected, and as her garden overlay limestone, and was of very shallow soil, averaging not more than a foot in depth, her strain of plants gradually became more compact. At the end of 25 years the type she had been selecting was of bushy form and was grown without support. W. W. Tracy, Sr., of the firm of D. M. Ferry & Co., Detroit, who is now superintendent of the Testing Gardens of the United States Dept. of Agriculture at Washington, D. C, saw the plants, and being immediately impressed with their distinctiveness and merits, obtained a small stock, only about 100 seeds.
This was the famous Blanche Ferry, and was introduced in 1889 by the firm above mentioned. It was honored by having a colored plate in the firm's catalog that year. Six years later Messrs. Ferry introduced the Extra Early Blanche Ferry, and described it in these words: "The Extra Early Blanche Ferry is more dwarf, very much earlier, and fully equal in all other respects to Blanche Ferry. How much earlier we hardly dare say, but the most competent observer who compared it with upward of 50 varieties, declares it is two or three weeks earlier than any of them. Our careful observation convinces us that it is so early and dwarf that in these respects it outclasses all other Sweet Peas, and while these qualities make it incomparably the best Sweet Pea for forcing, its dwarf habit and persistent blooming make it equally desirable for outdoor culture."
The House of Burpee distributed Earliest of All in 1898, when it was described in the catalog of the firm as "Not only the earliest to bloom in theopen ground, but also the most desirable for forcing under glass for Winter cut flowers. The dwarf habit of the plant (only 2 ft.) renders it much more easily grown upon benches, admits closer planting, and from seeds sown in the latter part of August blooms may be cut for the holidays, while with the taller varieties no blooms can be cut before February or March."
Gardening, Volume 6 - 1898 excerpt: 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.
Will W. Tracy.