book review: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I have read most of Michael Pollan’s works, including all of his books pertaining to food. I’ve reviewed Cooked on this blog, as well as Second Nature.I find his writing really engaging, so I stick with his books not just because he’s considered one of the top food studies experts in the country. 

I had seen the documentary based on The Botany of Desire around the same time as I first watched Food, Inc. years ago. (You can actually watch the documentary on PBS’s website here.) I realized more recently I had never actually read the book. The subtitle, A Plant’s-eye View of the World, is fitting, and probably what makes this book about plants stand out from any others I’ve read.

Pollan acknowledges that for centuries, we’ve believed that we as humans control plants. But for this book, he turns that around and asks if it’s possible that plants are shaping us as well. He centers the book around four basic plants and how they evolved over time to satisfy something humans want. Domesticated plants have a reciprocal relationship with us – it’s a two-way street.

The plants he covers are apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), cannabis (intoxication) and potatoes (control). In the section on apples, he discusses the legend of Johnny Appleseed – how much was true, how apples evolved in America, and how they’ve been used over centuries to satisfy our cravings for sweet. Most apples from seed are bitter and their fruits were used to make hard cider. It’s only through grafting over many years that we were able to cultivate sweet fruit, partly owing to a backlash against alcohol. My favorite part of this section was learning about how apples protect their genetic diversity – they are very different from many other plants. Human behavior threatens them by reducing that diversity in the quest for the same, consistent and sweet fruit.

The tulip section tries to answer the question of why we spend billions of dollars cultivating flowers that we can’t eat (besides their use to bees) – the desire for beauty. The info on floral reproduction was a little bit dry, though useful. However, the discussion of the tulipmania that swept Amsterdam in the 17th century, where a single bulb cost a fortune, captured my interest.

Probably my favorite section of this book, ironically, was the section on cannabis. It starts by talking about how plants protect themselves from predators by poisoning or sickening them, yet also draw other animals to them for their own purposes (reproduction). Culturally, it’s almost universal that groups of people are drawn to plants and substances that alter consciousness – and marijuana has provided that for centuries – in use since recorded history began, at the very least. When the U.S. war on drugs threatened its existence, it evolved to be grown indoors (and out of the reach of government efforts to curb its growth). Because it has to be grown so carefully, cross-bred for the best traits, etc. marijuana has reached new heights of growth and potency – the opposite of what the war on drugs wanted to achieve.

Scientists study the effects of intoxicant plants on humans, finding the tetrohydracannibinol (THC) that marijuana produces binds to receptors in our brains that affect memory and consciousness. But we also produce THC-like chemicals naturally, that do the same thing. It’s like we’re hardwired to respond. 

The potatoes section talks about the history of potatoes being a sustaining crop for many cultures, and also the problems that came with that dependency – the Irish potato famine in the 19th century. Within weeks, a fungus destroyed all potato crops – the result of a monoculture grown where no plant could offer up any resistance and the fungus could spread like wildfire. While the resulting starvation of a huge population of people was also due to factors beyond the destroyed, it served as a lesson to growers that monocultures are a great risk. However, we’re still growing monocultures of potatoes today – in particular, the Russet Burbank (the fry of choice for McDonald’s). This portion of the book talks about the effect on farmers and land, trying to grow potatoes in monoculture and make them disease and pest resistant (this is where lots of chemicals and genetic modification come in). 

It’s not often that we look at agriculture from the perspective that Pollan does in this book. I’ve never thought of plants having priorities – but it makes a lot of sense, and goes hand in hand with research that’s being done on plant intelligence. It certainly makes me look at my own garden differently – and will probably shape what will be planted in the coming year. Will I go for the maximum return for me, in what I desire? Or the maximum return for the plant, at the expense of beauty or taste? Hopefully the answer lies somewhere in the middle.