Aspen may be named after a tree, but it’s a flower that has long been the harbinger of summer. Named the town’s official bloom in 2001— though flourishing here for well over a hundred years—the sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), a tall, slender annual, produces brightly hued, graceful clusters of petals and can grow up to 9 or 10 feet high. Native to Sicily, sweet peas thrive in cooler climates and love full sun, which may help explain why they do so well in Aspen.
The flower has a storied history locally, but, more recently, longtime Aspenite Ramona Markalunas became an evangelist for the fragrant blooms. Starting in 1991, she and her husband, Jim, gave away seed packets each spring; along the way, they partnered with the Aspen Times, the Aspen Historical Society (which Ramona helped found and led for years), and other community sponsors to help distribute the freebies. Ramona passed away in 2012, but the tradition of seed distribution continues.
Since the late 1800s at least, according to newspaper archives, sweet peas have adorned local gardens, been used in bride’s bouquets and party centerpieces, and eventually earned Aspen a reputation as an epicenter for the plant. In August 1913, the Aspen Democrat-Times noted that two tubfuls of sweet peas were shipped to a women’s club assembly in Denver as an advertisement for the town. “We take second place for no one when it comes to the size and beauty of sweet peas,” the newspaper asserted.
In March 1941, the local PEO chapter urged gardeners to “plant more sweet peas this spring” in advance of the organization’s annual flower show, reported the Aspen Daily Times, and a 1949 article in the same paper declared, “Persons in the whole Roaring Fork Valley have known for many years that sweet peas here are larger, prettier, smellier, and have more blooms than anywhere else.”
Well, then, it almost seems like we’d be shirking our duties as good Aspen residents not to nurture at least a few sweet peas through the summer. Get a packet of seeds—free—on the porch of the Aspen Historical Society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum. (If you’re an AHS member, you’ll have already received a packet of seeds in the mail.) The Aspen Chamber Resort Association, the Aspen Times, and Bryan May Architecture have also sponsored this year’s crop. Plant the seeds now—ideally near a fence or a trellis, though a window box also serves—for blooms that will start in late June and go all summer. Pretty sweet, huh?