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ne 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.
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 with18,500 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 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.
I haven't seen any guilt over the bombings from anyone as most know the 2 bombs dropped on Japan saved far more lives than would have been lost had we needed to invade.
I certainly agree that our dependence on fossil fuels need to change. Just the fact that we are generating electricity by producing steam, with radioactive materials, to spin turbines just seems kind of insane to me.