During the early part of the Atomic Age, there wasn’t much that the promise of atomic power didn’t have the potential to make better. While the main development was the idea of peace through atomic bombs, other peaceful uses were researched, including atomic aircraft, atomic cars, atomic power in the home, and of course, Atomic Toasters—and one fascinating sidebar, the atomic garden. The idea was essentially this: as plants grow, genetic drift and mutation occur over time, and the mutations that result in stronger plants then get passed along to future generations, so why not try increasing the mutation rate through bombardments of plants with radiation, in search of better plants?
Ideally, the kinds of beneficial mutations that would come out of this research would be plants that produced more fruit, plants that were drought or cold resistant, plant strains that had the potential to help eradicate hunger in the world. The primary means for conducting this research were large gamma gardens on the grounds of national laboratories in the US, as well as in some European countries and even the USSR. As you can see in the images above and below, the gardens were designed in a circular shape, which was a functional layout, based on the need to arrange the plants in gradually widening circles around the radiation source. The source was nothing more than a piece of radioactive material mounted on a pole. This pole could be lowered down into the ground to allow workers to work the garden without radiation exposure risk.
The circular arrangement allowed for a simple way of metering the radiation exposure in the experimental plants; the closer in circles received the highest dose, and the plants farther out received less. Different types of plant would be arranged in wedges, to see how each was affected by the radiation. While the results were somewhat varied, in general, the plants closest to the radioactive source just died, while the next closest exhibited large growth abnormalities, like tumors. The plants that seemed to have the greatest potential for a positive mutation were those located far enough out so as to appear externally to be a normal plant.
The biggest success stories of the atomic garden research are a type of peppermint plant that was grown to be resistant to a fungal wilt, ‘Todd’s Mitcham’ cultivar, a product of thermal neutron irradiation, released in 1971, and the ‘Rio Star’ grapefruit, bred to have a redder color and juice than previous grapefruit varieties, which now accounts for around 75% of the Texas grapefruit production.
The efforts to harness the power of the atom to grow a better garden weren’t just limited to the national labs, and as you can see in the below image, irradiated seeds were also sold to the general public. Be sure to check back tomorrow for a look at these mini atomic gardens and some of the people that helped grow the Atomic for Peace movement.