We British as a nation have always liked to think of ourselves as excelling at freethinking, and breaking new ground. We hold a kind of rose-tinted affection for characters like ‘Alfred Russel Wallace… a public figure in England during the second half of the 19th century, known for his courageous views on scientific, social, and spiritualist subjects… His formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection… predated Charles Darwin’s published contributions‘.
Detail from Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Arcihpelago field study, 1854-1862 (Dutch East Indies)
Wallace, like Darwin and many others during the Victorian age, revelled in pioneering, swashbuckling tales of audacity and derring-do. In a similar mould, David Douglas, (of Douglas Fir fame) boldly went plant hunting:
‘Look, there’s the humble flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, whose rosy-red racemes mark the beginning of spring. This was introduced by David Douglas, as were lupins, California poppies and many of the conifers that are now staples of our arboretums and suburban gardens… Douglas paid for his discoveries with his life: he was killed in Hawaii at the age of 35 in a pit dug to trap wild bullocks.’ (Plant Hunters, Victoria Summerley, The Independent 2012)
Perhaps this independent, fighting spirit goes some way to explaining the British intractability and dislike of being ‘told what to do’, and our often obstinate refusal to have our national character ‘compromised’ in any way. On our travels through and past the Victorian age, we have taken the liberty of passing where, when and how we like, but remain sceptical of the rights of others to enjoy the same privileges in return.
Perhaps we believe that our role in developing significant scientific theories, ‘taking charge’ in the name of civilised society, and (when not meeting dramatic and bitter ends on our intrepid adventures) generally patronising the world at large and providing a kind of template for what an aspirational, civically-minded modern citizen should look like, are good enough reasons to continue.
In the C18, Like the British, the Dutch, the French and the Spanish were also busily building empires with the human wealth of regiments and commandeering small countries in honour of their sovereign rulers. Eminent plant hunters Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (accompanied by talented early botanical artists like Claude Aubriet) were expanding the plant palettes of their respective countries and creating incredible botanical art for the record.
So it seems that this outward looking, exploratory tendency has brought a world of diversity to our doorstep. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have been enough to sate our voracious appetites for novelty. George Shull (an American, no less) discovered something known as ‘hybrid vigour’ – the process of selecting desirable qualities through the mixing of material with distinct/diverse genetic differences to create a strong, uniform hybrid:
‘For over a century animal and plant biologists have known that mixing two diverse strains of a plant or animal can result in more vigorous and healthy offspring. This “hybrid vigour” was first shown by American Plant Scientist George Shull at the Station for Experimental Evolution, Cold Spring Harbor, in 1908 when he crossed two different corn strains resulting in a more vigorous hybrid…’
‘Hybrid offspring are called the first filial or “F1” generation, hence the term gardeners are familiar with when buying seed; ‘F1 hybrid’. To produce F1 hybrids, the farmer crosses two pure-bred parent strains. Often, these parent stocks are relatively small populations and hence are genetically rather uniform. For this reason, the hybrid offspring tend… to be more vigorous than their parents…’ The Difference: A Modern Genetic Perspective, channel 4, 2000
That said, it is difficult to quantify good and bad qualities, which in reality, are as far from binary as it is possible to get – is uniformity really a good quality, and is unattractiveness really a bad one if we are only going to eat something? Talking of bad qualities – we Europeans (for our sins) also spawned the Drumpft, who is allegedly descended from Scottish and German stock. Happily exported, and thoroughly naturalised abroad.
Genetic diversity (and indeed diversity in general) is also partly why we need open pollination and heirloom varieties too.
‘…we slowly came to realise that most modern varieties have been bred for the needs of large-scale chemical farming, where all aspects of the environment are controlled with fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
After all, supermarkets demand shiny fruit, that are tough to survive shipping and display, and so these are what are being bred. But these commercial varieties give poor results when grown on a home scale without all their chemicals. And whatever has happened to qualities such as flavour and tenderness?’ Real Seeds
Even British natives, (now frequently hybridised beyond recognition) like Dianthus gratianopolitanus, were accidentally introduced along with early Norman stonework imported from northern France for the construction of castles and fortresses after the invasion of England by Norman Vikings in 1066.
So some of our most famous ‘natives’ were, in fact, secret stowaways, introduced by accident. No one ever seems to agree on the precise origins of a plant and the same often applies to people. Indeed in many cases, it does not appear possible to make a definitive case.
Convallaria majalis is often considered to be native to the UK, however: ‘It is often difficult to separate native and alien plants and the map must be regarded as an approximation’ (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora)
Species seem to creep across continents and as climates change, they adapt. So what is a ‘true’ native – how can it be defined? Does it have inherent genetic weakness from millennia of breeding with only the true and ‘proper’ form, or does it enable noble and ‘pure’ lineage? Is a hybrid culture or material stronger because of its hybrid status? I have found investigation of this topic generates considerably more questions than it answers.
Jolly Old QE2, looking lovely. She’s a tiny bit German, you know.
Where exactly does the cutoff point lie, and is it ever possible to identify it? I am ‘White British’. But I am descended from Scotland, Ireland, Norfolk, (maybe some Dutch) Newcastle (maybe some Viking or Northern European), and Lancashire. And those are just the parts of my lineage I know about – should I decide to research my ancestry further, I’m sure I’d find a few surprises.
It’s complicated. Like me and my fellow inhabitants of the British Isles, many plant species are now completely naturalised and are not only valuable in terms of interest but now fully adapted to the climactic meteorological fripperies and caprices of the UK, of which there are multitudes (just in case you hadn’t noticed.)
Time, ‘What Science Says About Race and Genetics’, Nicholas Wade, 2014
Channel 4 ‘The Difference’, 2000
The Independent ‘The Plant Hunters’ Victoria Summerley, 2012
Real Seeds Online
Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora
The Origin of Plants, by Maggie Campbell-Culver
The Douglas Archives
We have begonias with fancier pants than the ladies of the Folies Bergères in 1910, Chrysanthemums brassier than Angie Watts circa 1987 and potatoes more purple than Prince’s paisley pantaloons (read Sally Nex’s blog for Crocus on the French heirloom potato variety ‘Vitelotte’). All the results of meticulous and laborious selection, over many painful years indeed – but still – just by selecting and manipulating specific forms, to breed in the characteristics we value.
So. Given the almost infinitely ludicrous diversity of the plant kingdom – including a vine with a flower that resembles a pelican’s bill (Aristolochia grandiflora) and orchids that look like tiny people; mimic bats, moths, or pretty much anything in their immediate locale – the idea of deliberately mutating plants by blasting them with radiation seems… well… a bit mental.
I had never heard of ‘gamma gardens’ until a friend sent me a link to an article about experimental gardens or ‘gamma fields’ being developed by the Japanese and the Russians in the 1950’s and 1960’s; a practice later more widely known as part of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ pro-nuclear propoganda campaign launched by the Americans in 1955 to clean up the appalling image of the nuclear industry following the disastrous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The advancement of this original research is still being built upon today at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York, which opened in 1947 as an atomic research facility. However their research themes have broadened significantly to include such lofty enlightenment as ‘Exploring cosmic mysteries across the smallest and largest scales imaginable, from neutrinos to dark energy’ and ‘colliding subatomic particles to recreate matter from the dawn of time, and study the force that gives shape to visible matter in the universe today’. The list of Nobel Prizes is a little dizzying. Perhaps a bit beyond my pea-brained forays, but still. We press on.
‘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…’
Improbably, an irradiated peanut fell into the hands of an housewife and atomic gardening enthusiast from Eastbourne, one Mrs. Muriel Howorth. The said peanut was gifted by progenitor Walter C. Gregory of North Carolina State College, U.S.A, and became a local celebrity in its own right when it sprouted and grew to gargantuan proportions in Mrs. Howorth’s back garden in Eastbourne.
The experiments led by the Japanese, the Russians and in the USA under the Atoms for Peace banner sought to ascertain whether any desirable qualities could be bred into crops using radiation technology in a peaceful, productive, economically responsible and positive way: “It’s clear from reading the primary sources that most people involved were deeply sincere. They really thought their efforts would eradicate hunger, end famine, prevent another war.” Paige Johnson, Pruned, ‘Atomic Gardens’
The only known functioning ‘gamma garden’ appears to be the Institute for Radiation Breeding in Ibaraki, Japan; (please, if anyone has information to the contrary please correct me) although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ‘secret labs’ all over the place. I once heard a rumour there was one in a disused warehouse in Fairfield, Hebden Bridge, specialising in a mutant strain of giant rhubarb. I can’t corroborate on the Fairfield facilities but the ones in Ibaraki are comprised of a purpose-built ‘gamma room’ (for irradiating seeds, bulbs, scions and tubers), a ‘gamma greenhouse’ for experiments on subtropical plant material, and a working ‘gamma garden’, for irradiating plants growing in situ – creepily arranged in concentric circles with a ‘radioactive pole’ in the centre to deliver the radiation.
Eminent nanotechnology researcher and inspirational garden history and landscape blogger Paige Johnson (interviewed here by the brilliant ‘Pruned‘ blog) briefly describes the working process of ‘mutation breeding’ as:
‘basically a slug of radioactive material within a pole; when workers needed to enter the field it was lowered below ground into a lead lined chamber. There were a series of fences and alarms to keep people from entering the field when the source was above ground.
The amount of radiation received by the plants naturally varied according to how close they were to the pole. So usually a single variety would be arranged as a ‘wedge’ leading away from the pole, so that the effects of a range of radiation levels could be evaluated. Most of the plants close to the pole simply died. A little further away, they would be so genetically altered that they were riddled with tumors and other growth abnormalities. It was generally the rows where the plants ‘looked’ normal, but still had genetic alterations, that were of the most interest, that were ‘just right’ as far as mutation breeding was concerned!’
‘That’s a pretty direct route; the genetic change produced by irradiation remains in the commercially cultivated variety, as my research shows so far. So yes, it is possible that someone, planting atomic seeds in their allotment, produced a plant with a genetic mutation that was robust enough to still possess the mutated ‘feature’ today.’
It is impossible not to ask yourself why we need to ‘hurry’ more desirable genetic traits into crops using radiation when we already have plenty of diversity and disease resistance in existing plant material.
‘Atomic gardening’ was considered a fast route to selecting desirable genetic traits in plant material, and a primitive precursor to modern genetic engineering and GMO techniques – although the safety of the end product is arguably less controversial.
Gamma gardens have produced many cultivars of irradiated crops with ‘useful’ mutations. Positive mutations in specific plants have been identified and directly utilised in commercial production, including the ‘Rio Star’ grapefruit, widely grown in Texas – famed for their ultra-red flesh and juice – and the psychadelic sounding ‘Purple Orchid III’ a mutagenic sweet potato grown by the Chinese. FROM SEEDS TREATED IN SPACE. YES. IN SPACE.
In the mutagenic varietal olympics, The People’s Republic of China definitely gets the gold for the most mutagenic varietal cultivars released globally at 25.2%. With silver, Japan wins with 15%, and in bronze position is India, with 11.5%.
Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the celtic and anglo-saxon penchant for getting out of our minds, gamma gardens have offered us ‘Golden Promise’ barley – a salt-tolerant dwarf-mutant barley form used in the brewing industry for beer and whisky – and we took it. Interestingly, the Whiskies of Scotland PR machine fails to mention their choice barley cultivar was created using radiation.
I’m guessing that most of us would be clueless about the ‘atomic heritage’ of plant material or seed. In the same way as many products made with GMO crops are unlabelled, ‘it is unclear how many of these varieties are currently used in agriculture or horticulture around the world, as these seeds are not always identified or labeled as being mutagenic or having a mutagenic provenance’. *shudders*
Atomic Bomb, by Andy Warhol, 1965
Atomic Gardening, by Muriel Howorth, 1960
Track of the Month
‘Atomic’, by Blondie
Postnatural, highly recommended.
Any papers by Paige Johnson
As an ‘evegalist’, I should really be extolling the invernal virtues of curly kale and brussels sprouts, but my heat and light longings induce visions of Carribean promise, and the sweetest of all bromeliads, the pineapple.
The pineapple is an unlikely symbol of the British will to succeed in growing something entirely inappropriate against all the odds. For me, it is synonymous with ostentatious carved Victorian gateposts and finials, carnival, glamorous cocktails, the tropics, Barry Manilow – and by loose tropical-themed association, Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’. I’m sure I recall pineapple motifs in the 1980’s, too, but I may have just made that up*. I certainly remember plenty of school discos serving cheese and pineapple hedgehogs and doing a ridiculous dance to Black Lace’s classic ‘Agadoo’, which seemed to involve a great deal of inexplicable pineapple-pushing.
The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is a fascinating plant, which lends itself naturally to design, (even harbouring the famously harmonious Fibonacci sequence, manifest in the ovules). The sequence is visible as raised, diamond shaped segments on the husk, which connected, form diagonal spirals around the entire fruit.
‘The Paraná-Paraguay river drainage basin is thought to be the region where the pineapple originated. It was also the home of the Tupi-Guaraní Indian tribe. . . ‘Ananas’ comes from the Tupi word nanas, meaning ‘excellent fruit’, as recorded by André Thevet in 1555. . . ‘comosus’ means tufted, and refers to the stem of the fruit. . . (it) is a perennial monocotyledonous plant with terminal inflorescence and fruit.’¹
Christopher Columbus, on his epic and impossible-seeming sea voyage, was the first European to taste a pineapple in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1843 – but people didn’t figure out how to grow them until 1719, when the first greenhouse fruits were cultivated.
Fruit and vegetable growing went on to become a competitive sport amongst the Victorians, who strove to grow all the most elusive and exotic hothouse fruit and flowers in order to impress their eminent houseguests. ‘Rare, exotic and hard to grow, Pineapples were a symbol of great status and wealth in Victorian times. ‘A pineapple on your dining table meant you were a person of discernment, style and affluence’².
If money were no object, and I could buy any house, anywhere, my money would have to be on the Dunmore Pineapple, Falkirk. Not only is it an immensely eccentric piece of British architecture, it presides over a huge walled garden, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) used to house numerous pineapple pits and glasshouses. And you can actually stay here, in the gardener’s annexes flanking the pineapple. Heaven.
‘The Pineapple is an elaborate summerhouse of two storeys, built for the 4th Earl of Dunmore. Though classical and orthodox at ground level, it grows slowly into something entirely vegetable; conventional architraves put out shoots and end as prickly leaves of stone. It is an eccentric work, of undoubted genius, built of the very finest masonry. To house the gardeners, stone bothies were built on either side of The Pineapple and it is in these that you stay. . .
It probably began as a pavilion of one storey, dated 1761, and only grew its fruity dome after 1777, when Lord Dunmore was brought back, forcibly, from serving as Governor of Virginia. There, sailors would put a pineapple on the gatepost to announce their return home. Lord Dunmore, who was fond of a joke, announced his return more prominently’³
When I think of some of the achievements of the Victorian age – the incredible, labyrinthine and still-functioning drains under London, numerous engineering conundrums in the form of improbable bridges, huge, towering iron behemoths and multiple industry-fuelling engines of mammoth proportions – growing a pineapple seems small beer. Horticulturally, however, it is no mean feat. Dedication and constant cossetting is mandatory for pineapple maintenance. I have seen it done with great success at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, where they have what they believe to be the United Kingdom’s ‘…only pineapple pit, the only working, manure-heated pineapple pit in Britain today. It was unearthed in 1991 and architectural and horticultural historians spent many months researching the history of its construction and technology. The first structure here was probably built in the eighteenth century’†.
From this incredibly labour intensive and high maintenance Victorian affectation, the pineapple grew to symbolise wealth and fecundity, which (in a highly ironic about turn) in the modern world is more likely to be seen as emblematic of an excessive consumer thirst for exotic curiosity, and comes at a price: the ubiquity of intensive farming, monoculture, environmentally and socially damaging growing practices and unsustainable air-miles. Maybe I will have a kale and sprout superfood powershake instead of a piña colada after all.
Track of the Month
Wham! ‘Club Tropicana‘ Party staple of my school discos in the 1980’s, and featuring George Michael, object of my (sadly misdirected) pre-adolescent desires.
Book of the Month
‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life’, an inspiring book by one of my favourite authors of all time, Barbara Kingsolver. A highly political slow-food rollercoaster about the Kingsolver family’s decision to take a militant pro-local food stance and give the twos-up to massive agribusiness, intensive farming, chemical-peddling, gene-manipulating multinational corporations. An illuminating book to inspire and educate fledgling heirloom gardeners and smallholders to continue with their struggle to grow diverse, locally produced food selected for flavour, and perhaps even adapted to local conditions. (The Seed Savers exchange is well worth a look if crop diversity and heritage cultivars are your bag).
*I did a quick poll on social media about this, and found that my memory was not as bad as had I feared.
The National Trust for Scotland
¹Natural History Museum
²†Lost Gardens of Heligan
³The Landmark Trust
Anton Seder Prints, Images courtesy Panteek, Wikimedia Commons
All other photos: Wikimedia Commons