Probably the seed of the idea was planted 35 years ago in a victory garden on a Utah sheep ranch. Along with other small varmints, 10-year-old Calvin Lamborn used to raid the family pea patch. “I remember chewing up the pods and having to spit out the parchment,” he says. Now, thanks to Lamborn, who became a practicing botanist, there’s something new under the harvest sun: sugar snap peas, which can be eaten—raw or cooked—pod and all. Further, Lamborn’s variety is fatter and sweeter than the snow pea and yields up to three times the crop of the common pea. To gourmet James Beard, sugar snaps are “nothing short of sensational…a breakthrough for all of us who love crispy, crunchy vegetables.” GM heir Stewart Mott was so excited by the new strain that he gave packets of the seeds to his hosts along the whole itinerary of his recent trip to China.
Sugar snaps are distributed by Burpee (and others), which featured them on the cover of the 1979 catalogue—an unusual promotion for seeds not developed in-house. (Lamborn made his discovery for the Gallatin Valley Seed Co. of Twin Falls, Idaho.) Seventy days after sowing, the plants are four to six feet high and ready to pick.
One of seven kids, Lamborn earned a doctorate in plant breeding and virology at Utah State. Ten years ago he began the delicate process of propagating a new variety by transferring pollen in tweezers from a standard garden pea to a one-in-one-million mutation that had developed in the Gallatin hothouse. Lamborn expected the cross (which took a decade to stabilize) to produce a high-yield variety of the common pea, but the pod’s sweet taste was a shock. “Some folks say sugar snaps taste almost like candy, but that’s stretching it a bit,” says the inventor.
For his work he will receive a modest bonus from Gallatin, which could itself earn $120,000 a year. He still drives a 1959 panel truck between work and his Twin Falls home, where he and wife Bonnie tend a large garden. Could it be that even now one of their five kids is out there chewing on a new idea?