August 21, 2011
Decades of professional landscaping have transformed Aspen’s yards and byways. Today, wildflowers are interspersed among the town’s aspens and ancient cottonwoods. Not so long ago, lilacs and sweet peas graced home gardens.
Sweet pea seeds were advertised in Aspen’s papers in the 1890s. Stores competed with each other, offering different varieties. By the early 1900s, sweet peas had become the most popular flowers in Aspen.
Bragging rights for each year’s first blossom made the news. The winner in 1902 was Amos Bourquin, who wagered against his friend A.W. Brown. Bourquin used Blanch Fairy seeds and grew them on the McClain Flats, where spring comes earlier than in town. Gardeners protected their methods, and each believed they had discovered the secrets to sweet pea cultivation, just as contestants of today compete to grow a giant pumpkin.
Mrs. C. E. Timblin drew attention and crowds of admirers, in 1905, for her nearly 9-foot-tall vines at 280 Lake Avenue. Hardly anything but trees grow that tall in Aspen’s short, high-altitude growing season.
In the summer, newspaper social columns featured descriptions of sweet pea bouquets that decorated homes for parties. The paragraphs focused on flowers suggest that party guests were more impressed with floral displays than the entertainment or the company.
Just as Americans are drawn to competition today, Aspen in the past hosted an annual Tri County Fair flower contest. From the early 1900s on into the 1940s, the event was one of the highlights of August. The competition, with prizes as high as $200 (early 1900s dollars), featured everything from asters to zinnias. The 1946 show had categories for table arrangement, most artistic arrangement in a basket, most artistic arrangement of wildflowers (try to get wildflowers to last long enough for a show!), best display of roses, best corsage, best arrangement in a vase, largest variety of flowers in one container, and best vegetable display.
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The most extensive category featured sweet peas, with seven subcategories: best 15 stems, largest display of colors, best collection, best pink, best red, best white, best lavender, and best purple collections. Imagine judging who had the best red sweet pea among those entered by every gardener from Aspen to Rifle!
In the 1950s and 1960s, the sweet peas most locals and visitors thrilled to each year were cultivated by Ethel Frost, my great-aunt. Her garden may not have been the prettiest, or the largest, but it was the most visible. Her sweet peas grew on a fence along the west side of her Main Street home (now Explore Booksellers), visible to anyone walking or driving by. Her circle of friends all proudly grew sweet peas. I know of no special method that she employed, but she and her fellow gardeners delighted in hand-watering their flowers each evening.
The Aspen Times of yore used to advise citizens of the best time to plant their sweet peas. Those continuing Aspen’s sweet pea tradition may want to consider the wisdom of your predecessors, rather than consulting the Farmers Almanac: April 14 was the Times’ most frequently recommended planting date.