The Flower Breeders Who Sold X-Ray Lilies And Atomic Marigolds

The Chelsea Flower Show, one of the most important and best known horticultural shows in the world, is currently open. In the coming times, some 150,000 visitors will make their way to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, hoping to be wowed by innovative garden designs and notably by gorgeous flowers. Among other things, show-goers will have a opportunity to learn the winner of the Royal Horticultural Societys Plant of the Year award. This Yearly prize goes to the most inspiring new plant on display at the show A high honour indeed given the amount and range of varieties released each year.

The constant pursuit of gaudy flowers for garden display extends back considerably farther than the 104 decades of the Chelsea show. One need only recall the infamous Dutch tulip craze of this 17th century to be reminded that fascination with flowery novelties has a long and storied history.

Over time, entrepreneurial cultivators have endeavoured to make unique plant types, either by bringing together the genetic material from established lines through hybridisation or by means of the discovery of new genetic variant like a chance mutation in a field. Today, blossom breeding is pursued using a far better understanding of plant biology than ever before, in certain cases with the assistance of technology like tissue culture and genetic transformation. Nevertheless the goal remains the same: the production of jelqing tulips, ravishing roses, show-stopping snapdragons and myriad other crops that will ideally prove irresistible to anglers and develop into a handsome profit.

Chelsea Flower Show 2016. Andy Rain/EPA

The quest to produce profitable new varieties And also to do so as quickly as possible occasionally caused by breeders to adopt methods that today seem odd. There is no better illustration of this than the mid century output of one of Americas biggest flower-and-vegetable-seed companies, W Atlee Burpee & Co.

Gardening With X-Rays

In 1941, Burpee Seed introduced a pair of calendula flowers called the X-Ray Twins. The organization president, David Burpee, asserted that these had their roots in a batch of seeds exposed to X-rays in 1933 and the radiation had generated mutant types, where the X-Ray Twins were finally developed.

At the time, Burpee wasn’t alone in investigating whether X-rays might ease blossom breeding. Geneticists had only recently come to agree that radiation could lead to genetic mutation: the possibilities for producing variation on demand now seemed boundless. Some breeders even hoped that X-ray technology would help them press beyond present biological limits.

The Czech-born horticulturist Frank Reinelt believed that subjecting bulbs to radiation might help him produce an elusive red delphinium. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t produce the hoped-for hue. Greater success was achieved by two engineers in the General Electric Research Laboratory, who produced And patented a fresh assortment of lily as a consequence of their experiments in X-ray breeding.

Though Reinelts along with other breeders’ tangles using X-ray technology led to few marketable plant types, David Burpee remained keen on testing new techniques as they appeared on the horizon. He was especially excited about approaches that, such as X-ray irradiation, promised to generate manifold genetic mutations. He believed that these would transform plant breeding by making new inheritable traits The vital foundation of a novel flower variety available on demand. He estimated that at his fathers time a breeder chanced upon a mutation after in each 900,000 plants. He along with his breeders, in contrast, outfitted with X-rays, UV-radiation, chemicals, along with other mutation-inducing methods, could “flip them out once in each 900 plants. Or oftener.

Scientific Sales Pitches

A 1973 Burpee cover. Burpee, CC BY-NC-ND

Burpees numbers were hot air, but in certain cases plant varieties produced through such approaches did prove hot sellers. From the late 1930s Burpee breeders started experimentation using a plant alkaloid called colchicine, a chemical that sometimes has the effect of doubling the amount of chromosomes in a cells cells. They exploited the method to make new varieties of popular garden flowers like marigold, phlox, zinnia, and snapdragons.

All were promoted as bigger and hardier Because of their chromosome reconfiguration And distinguished by the company as the products of accelerated evolution. The technique was particularly effective with snapdragons, giving rise to a line of “Tetra Snaps that were by the mid-1950s the bestselling varieties of blossom in the United States.

Burpees fascination with (in his words) shocking mother character to make book flowers for American anglers finally led him to research still more potent techniques for generating inheritable variation. He even had a number of those companys flower beds seeded with radioactive phosphorus in the 1950s. These attempts don’t appear to have contributed to any new varieties Burpee Seed never hawked an atomic-bred blossom but the companies experimentation with radiation did result in a new Burpee merchandise. Starting in 1962 they provided for sale packages of atomic-treated marigold seeds, where home growers might expect to develop a rare white marigold among other oddities.

Burpee was, above all, a consummate showman and a master salesman. His enthusiasm for its use of X-rays, chemicals, and radioisotopes in blossom breeding emerged as far from his knowledge that these methods might be effectively incorporated into sales pitches as from his interest in more efficient and effective breeding. Many of the mid-century consumers desired to see the most recent science and technology at work in their gardens, whether in the form of plant compounds, chemical treatments, or even types created through startling new practices.

Times have changed, 60-odd decades after. Compounds and radiation are as more often cast as threatening than benign, and it’s very likely that most of todays visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show hold a different view about the kinds of breeding approaches theyd prefer to see employed in their garden flowers. However, as the continuing popularity of this show attests, their celebration of blossom innovations and the individual ingenuity behind these continues, unabated.

Helen Anne Curry, Peter Lipton Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology, University of Cambridge

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