One March day in 1959, in the sleepy British seaside town of Eastbourne, a nuclear enthusiast decided to feed her dinner guests irradiated peanuts and potatoes that had been preserved with radioactive sodium.
While Muriel Howorth's guests were unsure about their repast, the unusual dinner was the start of an unforeseen chain reaction that led to the birth of one of the quirkiest horticultural collectives there has ever been: the Atomic Gardening Society.
The society encouraged members to grow plants under radioactive conditions so that beneficial mutations would arise. The idea might sound strange, even dangerous, now - but back in the 1950s it was part of a broader trend. The movement was part of a concerted effort in the US and Europe to find beneficial uses for atomic energy after the destruction caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In his 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations general assembly, US President Dwight Eisenhower highlighted a turning point in attitudes to nuclear power when he stated that it should be "constructive, not destructive". He also proposed the International Atomic Agency be set up, where "experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities".
In "gamma gardens" run by national laboratories in the US, plants growing in concentric circles were bombarded with radiation from a central source - such as cobalt-60 - elevated on a pole. The pole could be lowered below ground when people were tending the plants. Plants nearest the centre tended to die, a little further out they developed tumours and developmental problems, but the plants furthest out sometimes developed potentially beneficial mutations. It was hoped the treatment could, for instance, produce colour changes in flowers, disease resistance in wheat and increased sugar content in maples.
"If you think of genetic modification today as slicing the genome with a scalpel, in the 1960s they were hitting it with a hammer" says nanotechnologist Paige Johnson of the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who researches garden history in her spare time.
Johnson discovered the Atomic Gardening society while studying atomic motifs in gardens. She was quite unprepared to find this literal expression of the power of the atom in the garden. "When I first heard about atomic gardening I thought it was a joke," she says. "It sounded like something out of the B movies of the 1950s - giant ants and that sort of thing."
Giant ants maybe not, but the peanuts to which Howorth subjected her atomic dinner party guests had been bombarded with 18,500 roentgens of X-rays - that's 37 times the dose that would kill a person in 5 hours. The peanuts originated in the lab of Walter Gregory of North Carolina State University, who would select beneficial mutants from the plants he zapped - those which produced larger or more numerous peanuts than usual. His thick-hulled "North Carolina fourth-generation X-rayed" (NC4x) strain was the size of an almond (Crops and Soils, vol 12, p 12), and it was one of these that he sent to Howorth.
Gregory called the NC4x as "a milestone in crop breeding". When a NC4x Howorth planted germinated in a quick four days, it was hailed by garden writer Beverley Nichols as: "the most sensational plant in Britain... It is the first 'atomic' peanut".
The media attention brought new members to the society and allowed Howorth to conduct an early crowdsourcing experiment. She imported irradiated Atomic Energised seeds from entrepreneur C. J. Speas of Tennessee and distributed them to members of the society, who looked for changes in their seeds and reported them on progress cards. These were then analysed by retired geneticists and plant biologists.
It would be easy to dismiss atomic gardening as a naive and overzealous attempt to somehow make up for the ills of nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy seemed to promise not only free electricity but the eradication of famine - and the atomic gardeners had no qualms about releasing irradiated seeds into the environment. "They thought they were changing the world, and they weren't very self-reflective about that," says Johnson.
The legacy of the atomic gardens can still be seen today. Working gamma gardens exist in Japan, and varieties descended from irradiated plants - such as the Rio red grapefruit - stack our supermarket shelves. 70 per cent of the peppermint sold in the US is descended from a mutant in a neutron-irradiated source. Even if atomic gardening was a misguided experiment, it has thrown up some unexpectedly tasty results.
In 1963 Muriel passed the Atomic Gardening Society on to Thomas E. Grey. If anyone has any further information about him, or was a member of the society, please get in touch with Paige Johnson, who gave a talk on the Atomic Gardening Society at the Garden Museum in London recently.
(Image: Frank Scherschel/Time & Life/Getty)
This post originally appeared on New Scientist.