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Sweet Peas Journal


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Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus)

Sweet Peas are legumes, the third largest family of flowering plants. An unusual feature of legumes is nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen is essential for growth and legumes can obtain it from the atmosphere. The species has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria which form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this is used by the growing plant and some by other plants nearby.

The Sweet Pea is a widely cultivated annual, native to Italy, Sicily and Crete, but popular in gardens all over the world. It is easy to grow and thrives in moist but well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Its ornamental presence, splendid colors and form, and its delicate fragrance make for a decorative touch in any garden.

There are both vine and bush varieties. The vine-like stems climb with the help of tendrils. Flowers grow in clusters of two or four and are hermaphroditic; each flower contains both male and female organs. The flowers come in a variety of hues; from white and delicate mauves, saffron, pink, to intense purples, reds and magenta. They are pollinated by insects. The fruit is a hairy pod containing seeds rich in Vitamin A, but the seeds also contain a toxin which can lead to reproductive failure and degenerative arthritis, hence they are not edible. For years the essential oil from the Sweet Pea has been used in perfumery.

The plant (specifically what makes for purple vs. white flowers) was the subject of important genetic experiments by William Bateson and R.C. Punnett. Bateson saw many flaws in Darwin’s theory of evolution and became convinced of the universal validity of Gregor Mendel’s laws. Mendel, of course, is famous for his pea hybridization. It was Bateson who in 1905 coined the term genetics for this new science which did not fit any existing categories.

artwork and text by milly acharya ©2004