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The eccentric pioneers of vegetable electricity

There's a good chance you're familiar with Frankenstein's monster. But have you heard about his garden? Around the time the scientist who inspired Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was busy electrocuting live animals and dead prisoners, several of his contemporaries were doing the same to perennials and root vegetables. And just as these 18th Century forays into electrical stimulation purported to make the human body more robust (by delivering it from maladies ranging from paralysis and depression to diarrhea and venereal disease), they were also being investigated for the betterment of plant life. Experiments on electrified gardens were alleged to produce a range of benefits, from brighter flowers to tastier fruit. Before long, this pursuit went the way of its cousin, medical electro-quackery, and by the end of the 19th Century, respectable science had largely jettisoned both.

More than a century on, better tools and new insights are reanimating the study of electricity's effects on biology. Uninformed early animal experiments have resolved over the past 200 years into real understanding, and led to promising electrical medicine. Similarly, the old vegetable experiments are being exhumed to see what modern fruit they may yield. Maybe the new understanding could even improve 21st Century gardens.

The first hint that electric shocks might have a dramatic impact on crops came not from any human intervention but from nature itself. After a lightning storm, according to longstanding Japanese farming lore, mushrooms would proliferate madly. But you couldn't exactly call down lightning on demand to confirm this experimentally. That is, until the 1740s when various new devices allowed scientists to store and deploy this still-mysterious phenomena of 'electricity' at will for the first time. 

Soon deploying electricity as a gardening aid became a hot topic. Pierre Bertholon de Saint-Lazare, a French physicist, and philosopher who experimented widely on the still poorly understood mysteries of electricity, curated many of his contemporaries' plant experiments into a collection, De L'électricité des Végétaux.


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