The Hot New Sugar Snaps

By Deborah Wechsler

'Sugar Snap' pea

The 1979 debut of Sugar Snap pea on the gardening stage was received with extraordinary enthusiasm. It was featured on catalog covers, and All-America Selections made it a Gold Medal winner. Food and garden writers raved about the new vegetable: Nothing short of sensational," wrote James Beard in the New York Post. "Sugar Snaps might revolutionize children's attitudes toward vegetables," wrote Marion Burros in the Washington Post. Gourmet restaurants and groceries clamored for them; unscrupulous pea growers sold underripe shell peas as snaps; seed was in high demand and short supply.

Now, 16 years later, the sugar snap pea has proved to be an enduring star. It has won the hearts of children and adults alike and upstaged ordinary peas in many a garden. After all, why shell peas when you can eat them pod and all? Indeed, why even carry them into the house when you can stand in the garden and munch to your heart's content?

Although sugar snap has become the generic name for all sweet, fat, edible-podded "snap" peas (as opposed to regular "shell" peas and flat-podded "snow" peas), it is by no means the perfect variety. Though delicious, 'Sugar Snap' is tall and rangy and needs to be staked. Plants are slow to produce and prone to powdery mildew, and the seeds germinate poorly.

More than a dozen other kinds of snap peas have been released since the original Sugar Snap, offering earliness, dwarfness, greater disease resistance and stringless pods.

I've always been a loyal fan of 'Sugar Snap'. Then I heard about 'Cascadia', a promising new variety from Dr. Jim Baggett at Oregon State University. I also talked to Dr. Calvin Lamborn at Rogers Seed Co., breeder of 'Sugar Snap' and many of the other snap pea varieties. He's excited about several other new sugar snaps now in development. It's time, I thought, for some snap pea variety trials. How does 'Sugar Snap' measure up to the competition? How will the new varieties perform?

With the help of National Gardening's horticulturist Charlie Nardozzi, I contacted 11 of NG's Test Gardeners last spring and asked them each to grow and evaluate seven sugar snap varieties. Testers were located from Washington to Maine, Wisconsin to North Carolina, from zones 3 to 7. Varieties tested included the original 'Sugar Snap' (introduced in 1979), 'Super Sugar Mel' (1981), 'Sugar Ann' (1984), 'Sugar Daddy' (1987), 'Cascadia' (1993), 'SP 537' (1996) and 'SP 680' (1996). These last two are Dr. Lamborn's as-yet unnamed varieties scheduled for release next year.

Each tester planted a 10-foot row of each variety, all on the same day, at the typical pea-planting time for their area and trellised at least the tallest varieties, 'Sugar Snap' and 'SP 537'. The testers ranked each variety for germination, vine vigor, pod size and fullness, ease of harvesting, taste and yield, and gave each pea an overall score.

A variety trial is fun. In February I received seven packets of peas in the mail, along with seven carefully labeled wooden stakes and my record sheets. I planted the seeds according to instructions and waited. Long before harvesttime, each variety had its own personality -- sturdy little 'Sugar Ann', racing ahead for the first flower and first harvest, 'Sugar Snap' and 'SP 537' quickly demanding extra trellis, a dwarfed and distorted 'SP 680' straggling along at the rear. At harvest, I conducted taste tests, picking into seven anonymous numbered baskets, setting them before tolerant relatives and friends, and demanding their reactions. Our opinions were remarkably uniform, with clear winners. Based on my own trials, I can tell you unequivocally what I would grow again for both taste and performance.

Did other testers agree? Despite our geographic spread and varied conditions, there was considerable agreement on the best and the worst, with the middle rankings showing much more variation. To determine the following ranking, NG averaged all of the overall s the testers had given each variety.

The Seven Sugar Snaps

Winner: 'SP 537'. This new variety rated highest overall and specifically in taste, vigor, pod fullness, ease of harvest and total yield. Vines are a little shorter than Sugar Snap, though it's still a tall, climbing pea. It bears about a week earlier. It is tolerant to powdery mildew and top yellows, two diseases that can devastate 'Sugar Snap'. "The pods are thicker and plumper, with more doubles," says its breeder, Calvin Lamborn, "and they have that same good 'Sugar Snap' flavor." Most testers who liked it found this description to be true. "Great taste, sweeter than the others," observed Pat Bryan of Jamesville, New York. My picnic table of tasters all raved about the flavor.

Disadvantages -- 'SP 537' seemed to have strings on both sides of the pod, so that you had to string them twice or pull the strings to the side to get both at once. Those who had short trellises or liked dwarf peas complained about how tall it was; others commented on how easy it was to pick.

Runner-up: 'Super Sugar Mel'. Tester Fred Hahn of Galena, Ohio, ranked it first for its "vigor, ease of picking and flavor. Without doubt the best pea flavor." Others also gave it relatively high ratings -- the plants are sturdy and productive, and the curved pods, slightly longer than those of 'Sugar Snap', are beautiful. One tester noted that the pods were less likely to break open when cooked than those of some of the other varieties. However, 'Super Sugar Mel' didn't score highly for taste with some testers: "A little blah," wrote Donna Winiarski of Hales Corners, Wisconsin. I also found it insipid.

'Sugar Snap'
Its excellent flavor earns it a devoted following: "Great sweet taste," wrote Pat Bryan. Many of our testers mentioned that it was their usual choice. Most testers also noted poor germination and slowness to bear, however. For some, like me, this resulted in reduced yields; for others, 'Sugar Snap' gave a long harvest and outproduced the competition.

Reviews from our testers were mixed. I liked this variety a lot. Pods were thick, full and meaty, and stayed flavorful even when quite mature. Plants were extremely sturdy, vigorous, early and productive, the tallest of the dwarf varieties. 'Cascadia' was my second favorite, but the top favorite of Donna Winiarski: "Absolutely the best flavor; sweet, holds well, and gets fatter and stays sweet." On the other hand, "A poor taste raw, though better cooked," reported Lynn Fowler of West Cornwall, Connecticut. "No sweetness at all," wrote Karin Overbeck in Deer Park, Washington. Though Gale Flagg of Fort Kent, Maine, rated it high, he "probably would not grow it again because of small pods and susceptibility to fungal and bacterial diseases." Several testers noticed that extra care was needed in picking because the pods tended to break off at the stem end.

'Sugar Ann'
This 1984 All-America Selections winner was first to bear and scored highest in length of harvest. "It was the first out, and thus has a place in the garden," commented Karin Overbeck. Several testers noted that it was the only variety to have a second period of flower set. With two-foot vines, 'Sugar Ann' is one of the most dwarf of the snap peas, easy to trellis but sometimes hard to pick. On the downside, pods are only about 2 1/2 inches long and not terribly sweet.

'SP 680'
The consensus among testers echoed my own: My plants were stunted, sickly and very slow growing. Plants were unproductive because they were so late to bear. Pods tasted okay but were nothing special. However, Margaret Faunce in Buhl, Idaho, gave 'SP 680' an unqualified first-place endorsement. "It did fantastic here; it loved the heat -- it was in the mid-80s when I planted," she said. Breeder Calvin Lamborn was surprised to hear how badly 'SP 680' fared in our trials -- he thought it had great potential. This variety may be very regionally adapted. Margaret Faunce's garden is less than 20 miles from Lamborn's trial gardens in Twin Falls. Besides both locations having similar soils and weather, Faunce and the researchers provided irrigation to their peas in a season of unusual drought and heat.

'Sugar Daddy' brings up the rear. It scored badly overall and in each individual category. It's the first stringless snap pea, but this positive characteristic just couldn't outweigh its disadvantages. "I found the plants to be straggly, weak and very heat-sensitive. The pods were bumpy and tight around the peas, rather than full and smooth, and they were more dry and crunchy than juicy. Poorest flavor of any variety we have ever tried," said Fred Hahn. "It's the only variety we cannot recommend."

Lessons, Exceptions and Conclusions

Our testers' experiences indicate that all snap pea varieties need some kind of trellis. Those who tried to grow any of the shorter ones without a trellis complained of them falling over, and 'SP 537' and 'Sugar Snap' were too tall for short pea fences. "I wish I'd used taller trellises [for 'SP 537']," commented Lynn Fowler. "Once the hot weather started, the vines took off and doubled in height in one week, then fell over the top of the trellis."

Our results are, of course, just one year's experience. I don't suppose that any of us had a "normal" year, if such a thing exists. "This was not the year to test peas," commented Margaret Faunce, reporting a spring drought followed by hail, high winds and hot weather. "The spring of 1994 was great for early planting of peas," wrote Natali Steinberg of Boulder, Colorado, "but in mid-June we had an extremely hot and dry period, breaking weather records for the highest average June on record." Here in North Carolina, where peas don't usually grow well, we had a perfect year for peas. Even though wet weather kept me from planting as early as I would have liked, we had an unusually long, cool spring.

So, what should you grow next year? Properly, variety trials should be repeated for a number of years -- this year's favorites may be next year's disasters. Although growth and yield will vary from year to year, other characteristics, such as flavor, pod shape or relative earliness, can be judged more confidently from a single season. Based on their performance and my own taste preferences, I will grow 'SP 537', 'Cascadia' and a short row of 'Sugar Anns'. All of these come in earlier than 'Sugar Snap'; if we have a more typical year, I may get my peas before the heat hits.

Even if 'Sugar Snap', or some other favorite, still retains your loyalty, let it share the stage with another variety or two. This will audition the newcomers, hedge your bets against the vagaries of weather and stretch the pea harvest, and you'll appreciate the individual character of snap peas all the more.

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