People Once Used Nuclear Radiation to Grow Really Big Plants

Misshapen tomato crop. By Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock
This promotional “Atoms for Peace” pamphlet showed how farms use atomic energy.
This promotional Atoms for Peace pamphlet showed how farms use atomic energy. National Archives Catalog

The word nuclear has a bad reputation, and for good reason. If you know your history, it may bring to mind the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during World War II that killed hundreds of thousands of people, or maybe the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Which is precisely why, in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government launched a program called Atoms For Peace to give nuclear energy some positive press. One of the public relations strategies included so-called gamma gardens, also known as atomic gardens. Basically people used nuclear radiation to try to grow mutant plants.

The hope was that the mutations would be beneficial — that plants would grow faster, be more resistant to cold or pests, produce bigger fruits or simply be more colorful, for example, making the practice more attractive to farmers and gardeners.

Atlas Obscura explains how the radiation worked to affect plant growth:

The mechanism of a gamma garden was simple: radiation came from a radioactive isotope-laden metal rod, which jutted out of the garden’s center and exposed the plants to its silent rays. Radiation slowly bludgeoned the plant DNA like a hammer and changed how genes were expressed.

Some of the gardens covered five acres or more and formed a circle, with the radioactive rod in the center, according to the 99% Invisible radio program, and those rods would radiate the field for 20 hours a day.

Go nuclear in your own backyard

In 1959, across the Atlantic in the U.K., a woman named Muriel Howorth started the Atomic Gardening Society and published a book a year later about how anyone can grow an atomic garden in their own yard. Between the appeal of mutant plants and her handy DIY guide, gamma gardens took off in labs, farms and backyards.

The 99% Invisible radio show detailed more about Howorth's borderline obsession with atomic gardening in one episode:

She would ship members irradiated seeds and ask them to send back any data they could about the plants. Howorth also published an atomic magazine and hosted gatherings and film screenings on atomic topics — in 1950, she even staged a performance where actors pantomimed the structure of an atom. From a review in Time magazine: “Before a select audience of 250 rapt ladies and a dozen faintly bored gentlemen, some 13 bosomy atomic energy associates in flowing evening gowns gyrated gracefully about a stage in earnest imitation of atomic forces at work.”

For some people, the appeal of atomic gardens was to grow a lot of food and ease food shortages after the war. But for others like Howorth, the appeal was simply to try something new and interesting. She lobbied hard for her cause, too. She wrote to Albert Einstein and he agreed to become a patron of her organization, according to a paper published in the British Journal for the History of Science.

Former Atomic Gardening Society President Muriel Howorth shows garden writer Beverley Nichols a two-foot-high peanut plant grown from an irradiated nut in her yard.
Former Atomic Gardening Society President Muriel Howorth shows garden writer John Beverley Nichols a two-foot-high peanut plant grown from an irradiated nut in her yard. Jacobo37/Wikimedia Commons

Fads fade ... mostly

Alas, despite Howorth's best efforts, enthusiasm for gamma gardens waned as beneficial mutations were rare and amateur growers found it difficult to detect them. However, the concept of genetically modified crops started long before this trend and continues to this day. Gamma gardens even contributed to some varieties of plants today, including these black beans and this type of begonia. And Japan's Institute of Radiation BreedingInstitute of Radiation Breeding has adopted atomic garden techniques to breed various crop species.

The conversation about GMOs is certainly more controversial today than it was back then, but this interesting chapter just shows how attitudes can change over time.