In March 1959 an unusual group of scientists, government officials, and lesser worthies assembled for a dinner party in the dining hall of the Royal Commonwealth Society, London. Unbeknownst to them, one of the courses was a strange strain of American peanuts: ‘NC 4x’, ‘North Carolina 4th generation X-rayed’ peanuts, produced from seeds that had been exposed to 18,500 roentgen units of x-rays in order to induce mutations. The irradiated peanuts were unusually large--big as almonds, according to those in attendance, outshowing the British groundnuts served alongside--and had reached the dining table through the generosity of their inventor Walter C. Gregory of North Carolina State College, who sent them as a gift to Mrs. Muriel Howorth, Eastbourne, enthusiast for all things atomic.
Disappointed with the reaction of her guests, who were less than appreciative of the great scientific achievement present at table, Muriel afterwards “began inspecting [the] uncooked nuts wondering what to do with them all…I had the idea to…pop an irradiated peanut in the sandy loam to see how this mutant grew.” The “Muriel Howorth” peanut (for she had already named it after herself) germinated in four days and was soon two feet high. She called the newspapers.
Almost immediately there were interviews and television appearances, AP reporters in the driveway and sightseers peering into the glasshouse to get a look at the plant. Its portrait was commissioned and put on display at the Walker Galleries in London. Garden writer Beverley Nichols came to call:
"Yesterday I held in my hands the most sensational plant in Britain.
It is the only one of its kind. Nothing of its sort has ever been seen in the country before.
To me it had all the romance of something from outer space.
It is the first ‘atomic’ peanut.
It is a lush, green plant and gives you a strange, almost alarming sense of thrusting power and lusty health.
It holds a glittering promise in its green leaves, the promise of victory over famine."
Muriel was a great former of societies (about 12, near as I can tell, over her lifetime..she was invariably President), and she immediately constituted the Atomic Gardening Society and published a manual, Atomic Gardening:
"I now felt that by some stroke of luck which is difficult to ascribe to chance, I had been given the opportunity—so much longed for—to bring science right into the homes of the people. I organized an ATOMIC GARDENING SOCIETY to co-ordinate and safeguard the interests of ATOMIC MUTATION EXPERIMENTERS who would work as one body to help scientists produce more food more quickly for more people, and progress horticultural mutation."
The Atomic Gardens grew out of post-WWII efforts to use the colossal energy of the atom for peaceful pursuits in medicine, biology, and agriculture. 'Gamma Gardens’ at national laboratories in the US as well as continental Europe and the USSR bombarded plants with radiation in hopes of producing mutated varieties of larger peanuts, disease resistant wheat, more sugary sugar maples, and African violets with three heads and a singular atomic entrepreneur named C.J. Speas irradiated seeds on his Tennessee farm and sold them to schoolchildren and housewives, among them Mrs. Muriel Howorth.
Atomic Gardens are my current research project, and will soon result in a publication as well as a presentation to take place on February 28, 2011 at the rescheduled (after last year’s volcanic ash debacle) study day on the Landscape of the 1950s. They are just recent enough that there are those still alive who may remember what was at least enough of a cultural moment to to form the plot device for Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
If you know anyone that participated, that was involved in laboratory research, or grew the seeds, or was a ‘Mutation Experimenter’, please get in touch…the history of one of gardening’s weirdest moments needs to be captured before it’s too late! (And if you want to hear more, sign up for the 1950s study day at the University of Bristol...)