Monday, April 17, 2017

Atomic Gardening

By Cassey Anderson, Adams County Extension

Photo Credit: 
Listening to a podcast awhile back I learned about a form of gardening I had never heard of before. In the 1950s scientists realized that, in the presence of gamma radiation, plants would mutate.  Interest in crop mutation grew out of a combination of food insecurity as a consequence of World War Two and the discovery of the power of the atom. In the fallout from the atomic bomb in Japan, people noticed that sesame plants near the blast site grew much larger than non-irradiated sesame plants. This sparked an interest in scientists and lay persons alike seeking to see if they could safely replicate these effects.

Gardens, named atomic gardens, were arranged in a radiating pattern with a radioactive source at the center, typically cobalt-60 (ironically these gardens resembled the warning symbol for radioactivity). While the plants nearest the radiation source would often be stunted or die, those further away were likely to exhibit a wide variety of mutations.  The results were highly unpredictable but there were some successes from irradiated seed. This was the period in which radiation was perceived as likely to make things stronger, rather than weaker. Think Spider Man, Godzilla, Atomic plants; they all fit in the same optimistic mentality of the benefits of radiation.
An early Atomic Garden.
Photo courtesy of

A woman in Britain, Muriel Howarth, started the Atomic Gardening Society to encourage homeowners to plant seeds from these irradiated plants. Howarth even published a how-to guide on Atomic Gardening, titled the same. Her goal with her home gardeners, who she called “Atomic Mutation Experimenters”, was to work to help scientists produce food more quickly for more people and progress mutations to promote food security. The seeds from the plants grown in this manner were not radioactive, but did have radiation induced mutations.
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In one of the research gardens in Rhode Island plants placed in the radioactive garden included plants ranging from strawberries to sugar maples. By 1958 government labs around the world had set up atomic research gardens. Muriel Howarth tasked her Atomic Mutation Experimenters with keeping data on the progress of the plants they grew out for scientists. Many seeds did not produce a plant or a satisfactory product, as blasting a plant with radiation receives erratic results.
Current gamma garden at the Institute of Radiation Breeding in Japan.

Home gardeners became discouraged with limited results from their research plants, and even government programs with dedicated personnel produced only limited results. The final program in the US was discontinued in 1979. However, there is still a working “gamma garden” in Japan, the Institute of Radiation Breeding. There is also a collaboration of scientific research focused on nuclear techniques in food and agriculture called the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture to help improve global food security and promote sustainable agriculture development.

There are some survivors in our food supply from this strange period of atomic gardening. You may be familiar with the Rio Red grapefruit, and ‘Todd’s Mitcham’ peppermint for oil production, they are both byproducts of atomic mutation experiments. The Joint FAO/IAEA division lists over 3200 official mutant varieties from 214 different plant species. 


  1. So neat! Thanks a lot! Did the podcast go into any further details on the pros and cons of this experiment, maybe on the nutritional or ecological level? I am awfully curious now.


    1. They did not go that direction with it, except to point that the seeds created are not radioactive. It's worth a listen, they explore the topic with a little more political lens of the time.

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