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Woods, water & worse/Jim Junttila

The Keweenaw's sweet pea swarm

July 10, 2009
The Daily Mining Gazette

Last week in this column we talked about the gorgeous long, tall lupin now showing and showing off all over the Keweenaw, and the e-mail rang off the hook. Thinking I had struck a rare responsive chord out there, and not wanting to kill the buzz or show any favoritism to our flowers, I figured this would be as gooda time as any to feature another local favorite, the sweet pea.

Like the lupin, sweet peas are covering the Copper Country even as we speak, from the toppa Quincy Hill to the tippa the Keweenaw and beyond. The hillside on White Street in Hancock is covered with them. So are the roadsides and side roads between Ripley and Dreamland, the Monte and McLain State Park. Sweet peas are so usta growing outa poor rock and stamp sand, and on Lake Superior beaches and sand dunes, they think they're living high on the hog in even the skinniest topsoil.

Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is a flowering plant in the genus Lathyrus in the family Fabaceae (legumes) native to the eastern Mediterranean region from Sicily to Crete. "It's an annual climbing plant, growing to a height of 1-2 m and higher wherever they can find something tall to grow on," said WW&W wildflower correspondent Paris Hiltunen, brushing back an aggressive tendril heading up her leg. "According to Wikipedia, the leaves are pinnate with two leaflets and a terminal tendril that twines around tall grass, bushes and anything it can climb," she continued. "This one sure fits the description," she added, half-heartedly removing the lusty legume from her other leg.

Sweet peas aren't just any legume, they're a bloom legume, which I like because it rhymes. I'm also a big fan of the hot pink, purple and magenta flowers and the kinda fragrance fantasies are made of. The term legume is derived from the Latin "Legumen" and the Finn "Legumenen," so Finnish it takes a double "enen" to spell it.

Legume plants are known for their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen (which, I admit, I didn't even know was busted), thanks to a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria known as rhizobia found in root nodules of these plants. Check out the pods on sweet pea vines. Other well-known legumes are alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lentils, lupins, mesquite and peanuts.

"Flower gardeners love them for their bright colors and the sweet fragrance that gives them their name. I guess Popeye and Olive Oyl named their baby Sweet Pea for the same reasons." Paris said.

Sweet peas have been cultivated since the 17th century and a vast number of cultivars are commercially available, but why? Around here, you can dig up a clump or two, transplant them in your yard or at the camp, and they'll go crazy. Try popping a few plants into your blueberry patch and see what happens.

Henry Eckford, a Scottish nurseryman (died 1909), cross-bred and developed the sweet pea, turning it from a sweet smelling but humble flower into a floral sensation of the late Victorian era. God only knows how they got to the Keweenaw, but he ain't saying. If I can make up the lupin emigrating from Finland to the Lupinen farm backa Liminga, I guess I can make something up for the sweet pea. They sure grow in profusion along Woodtick Crick, which 'splains why the sweetest-tasting brookies in the Keweenaw come from there.

"Wherever you find sweet peas, you'll find bees," Paris cautioned, swishing away a particularly pesky one as she stood up to her knees in a perfumed patch of the hot pink flowers backa Raymbaultown. "I'd swat it, but I don't want to kill the buzz."

WW&W Fishing Tournament Calendar:

July 7-Sept. 8, BHK Youth Fishing Contest. Kids ages 3-15 are invited to take part in the fifth annual summer-long contest in Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties. The contest has two divisions, ages 3-7 and 8-15, with cash and merchandise prizes for the three largest walleye, northern, perch, bass, brook and rainbow trout, salmon and lake trout. To register, buy a $5 BHK Summer Fishing Contest button from participating retailers in the Tri-County area. For more information, list of retailers, and official weigh-in sites, call Roger Wickstrom at BHK, 482-3663.

Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at



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