Atomic Gardening Tried To Find The "Bright Side" Of Nuclear Weapons


Rachael Funnell


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Digital Content Producer

atomic gardening

The world's largest "gamma garden" is in Hitachi?miya-shi, Japan. Image credit: Google Maps, public domain

Atomic gardening was a practice born out of war as Atoms for Peace tried to find alternative, more positive uses for fission energy in the 1950s following the devastation of World War II. The practice, also known as “gamma gardens”, explored the effect of radiation on botanical species and later tried to introduce beneficial mutations.

Atomic gardens were often arranged in concentric circles with plants on the innermost rows being closest to the source of the radiation, usually cobalt-60. The design was intended to deliver varying strengths of radiation so that plants of the same species were affected differently by the radioactive source.


Those exposed to the highest levels of radiation at the center might be burned or dead, but plants further back would exhibit changes invisible to the human eye as their DNA was altered and mutated.

These mutations might kill the plant or make it sterile, but it was also possible that they could introduce beneficial traits.

By blasting plants with radiation, it was hoped that there would be more opportunity for harvesting the beneficial breed of mutation by speeding up the rate that mutations were taking place. Mutations occur in plants naturally, but introducing radiation speeds up the process significantly

Atomic gardens began to crop up across the globe from the United States to Europe, India, and Japan. In the UK, atomic activist Muriel Howorth established the Atomic Gardening Society (AGS) in 1959, whose goal was to encourage ordinary people to incorporate the practice into their gardening.

Armed with irradiated seeds, the AGS tasked members with growing them at home and reporting back on the outcomes in an effort to identify beneficially mutated plant strains. One success story saw Howorth become the proud owner of a 0.6 meter (2 foot) tall peanut plant that produced unusually large nuts.

The radioactive peanut plant was the result of a peanut seed being exposed to radiation that was 17 times the amount needed to kill a person, The Dispatch reported in 1959. Its beneficial traits came from mutations that “would take nature thousands of years to [produce]. Radiation did it in minutes.”

As for atomic produce, it’s quite possible you’ve sampled some. The Red Rio Grapefruit was born of atomic gardening, famous for its redder-than-red flesh, while Golden Promise barley is believed to be to thank for any whiskey aged between 35 to 40 years old today, writes Neo Life.

The mutations weren’t just about improving flavor, however, and some were a boon to plant health. A virus-resistant mutant of a type of cacao tree in Ghana created using radiation came to the rescue when disease was otherwise wiping them out.


As for showcasing the "bright side" of nuclear power? The haphazard nature of the mutations’ emergence lost the technology favor among the scientific community, and as public concern surrounding radiation and cancer grew, atomic vegetables were soon losing their popularity across the board.

While you can still purchase descendants of the atomic garden era, gene-edited foods today are created using alternative technologies including CRISPR.

Genetically modified (GMO) foods can also be produced, such as the recent antioxidant-rich purple tomato that’s packed full of blueberries’ “superfood” ingredient, anthocyanin.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


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