The tale of the Lady Penny sweet peas that were brought back from extinction thanks to a handful of saved seeds

When the seeds of her eponymous sweet pea were lost, Lady Penny Mountbatten turned to Roger Parsons, holder of the National Collection, for help. Report by Tiffany Daneff, with photographs by Daniel Gould.

A couple of weeks ago, Lady Penny Mountbatten was finally reunited with her sweet peas.

It was quite a moment: she hadn’t seen them for 15 years — but nor had anyone else, as Lathyrus odoratus Lady Penny, a lovely Spencer variety with deep-lavender flowers, had been completely lost. What made this particularly poignant was the story behind it.

When she married Lord Ivar Mountbatten in 1994, they lived at Moyns Park at Steeple Bumpstead in Essex. Nearby was a sweet-pea nursery, Robert Bolton & Son, which named a sweet pea after Lady Penny as a wedding present. Also growing at Moyns Park was the yellow floribunda R. Mountbatten and, together, they made a rather pretty posy. ‘I used to take my name in flowers as a present for my daughters’ play dates or when we visited friends,’ says Lady Penny.

In 1995, aboard RY Britannia on holiday, they visited The Castle of Mey for lunch. ‘It’s quite hard knowing what to take as a gift to a queen, so I thought I would bring some Lady Penny sweet-pea seeds.’

The sweet peas flourished at the castle, but, not being green-fingered, Lady Penny had not grown any herself and when, years later, she thought to buy some more, she drew a blank. Boltons had closed and her family had forgotten to keep them going; in short, her sweet pea was nowhere to be found.

By chance, she met Martin Hunt, an advisor to The Castle of Mey, who put her in touch with the head gardener, but it was too late — there were no seeds left. Undeterred, with the help of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Mr Hunt tracked down Roger Parsons, who holds the National Collection of sweet peas at his nursery in Chichester, West Sussex. This includes more than 1,300 cultivars, as well as a seed bank.

Roger Parsons of Roger Parsons Sweet Peas in Chichester

Roger Parsons admires his sweet peas. Credit: Daniel Gould / Country Life

He wasn’t growing Lady Penny, but, as luck would have it, he did have the seed and was, he says, the only person in the world who did.

Mr Parsons dug out the seeds, kept some himself and gave the rest to Lady Penny, as well as some to Mr Hunt to take to The Castle of Mey. The race was on to see whose flowers would bloom the earliest.

Fast forward to the summer of 2019 and, in Chichester, the first buds opened. At last, the two Lady Pennys were reunited.

Happily, it’s not merely a touching story: Mr Parsons is so impressed with this variety that he will continue to grow it. He explains: ‘This sweet pea deserves to be more widely known and grown. It has good strong long stems, big frilly flowers and is ideal for showing, cutting and decorating the garden.’

‘Lathyrus’ Lady Penny grows in the Queen Mother’s Walled Garden at The Castle of Mey, Caithness www.castleofmey.org.uk, open until September 30, except July 24–August 6; you can also stay at the castle in their recently-opened B&B, The Granary Lodge. If you wan to grow your own Lady Pennys, Roger Parsons hopes to have seeds from this year’s stock on sale from August — www.rpsweetpeas.com.