The history of Unwins began in 1903 when William Unwin sold his first sweet pea seeds under the company name W.J. Unwins Ltd. However, the story began two years earlier, in the summer of 1901 in Histon, Cambridgeshire. One evening, after choir practice, William showed two of his fellow choristers around the many rows of sweet peas that he grew to send as cut flowers to the London Flower Market at Covent Garden Market.
William was soon hybridising sweet peas, and offered large flowered varieties in a wide range of colours. One key sweet pea variety that became popular and lead to William’s success was ‘Gladys Unwin’, named after his daughter. This pink, frilly, scented flower, proved to be more stable than competitor Cole’s similar variety; ‘Countess Spencer’. William went onto develop this variety even further by creating it in almost every colour apart from yellow.
In 1914, William’s son Charles joined him in the business. Charles went on to become one of the leading sweet pea breeders of the 20th Century. Together, both William and Charles bred over 250 hybrid sweet peas and moved from creating plain coloured varieties to those with ‘stripes’ and ‘flakes’. Charles’s favourite was a salmon pink variety named after the Unwins family friend Frances Perry.
William’s second son, Frank, had a particular interest in gladioli, and he became as well known for his breeding work with gladioli as Charles did with sweet peas. The men soon became general seedsmen, offering a wide range of flowers and vegetables. The family not only bred sweet peas and gladioli but also dahlias, tomatoes and culinary peas, among many others.
In the late 1950s, the Unwins decided that they would supply their seeds in full-colour seed packets to gardening shops and garden centres. By this time, Garden Centres were relatively new as previously people went to the markets to buy their plants. Until then, Unwins only sold their seeds through a mail order service. The venture was a great success, and was responsible for the steady growth of the Company for many years to come. By the 1960s, W.J. Unwins Ltd became one the largest horticultural seed merchants in Britain and sold seeds under contract in many parts of the world.
Today, Unwins still have a large share of the UK amateur seed market. The Company’s breeding work still continues, especially in sweet peas, and it has the largest annual sweet pea trial than anywhere else in the world. Sweet pea seeds, like many other flower seeds, are produced commercially around the world, including in the United States, Eastern Europe, Malta and Continental Europe, although very little is now grown in Great Britain.
Each step of the operation is performed by hand, from sowing, through to “roguing” (the elimination of off-types), to harvesting and sorting. Seed is then hand-picked into an apron-pouch and emptied into clearly-labelled sacks. On arrival at Unwins’ premises in Cambridgeshire and prior to packing, the seeds are tested for quality of germination and vigour.
Before packing the seeds into their individual seed packets, most seeds are stored in a special chamber which has an environment of 20% relative humidity and a temperature of 20°C. The seed is then sealed in air tight foil sachets. Each seed sachet has its own micro-climate to allow the seed to stay in perfect condition until the seal is broken by the gardener who is intending to sow the seed.