Book Review: The Botany Of Desire

Quick Facts on The Botany of Desire

When looking for books about nutrition and eating, it’s hard not to stumble up Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. But this is not a review of those books. While both interesting and worth the a read by anyone nutrition-conscious, it is one of Michael Pollan’s other books that is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and simply I cannot bring myself to discuss In Defense of Food or Omnivore’s Dilemma when there is a more stunning work to be mentioned. Published in 2001, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World is . It looks at the interplay between humans and plants. It’s not a nutritional guide, it’s an exploration of our own nature and, more importantly, the plants that exploit it.

Yes, I said the plants that exploit us. Think about it this way. When we describe how a plant produces nectar so that a bumblebee will lands, drink the nectar from the flower, and in the process pollinates it, we look at is as a master manipulation of the plant. The plant has somehow taken advantage of the bee’s hunt for food to sexually reproduce. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan asks one simple question that leads to an incredible new world view of plants: “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?”

Like Bees to a Flower

The book centers around four plants that have excelled at exploiting our desires: Tulips, Potatoes, Apples and Cannibus. Each has succeeded spectacularly by appealing to a different desire of ours: tulips satisfy our desire for beauty, potatoes, for control, apples for sweetness, and cannibus for intoxication. By doing so, they have become four of the most widespread and readily recognizable plants in the world.

Just think about the millions of tulips that travel around the world to end up a fixture of the suburban landscape, or the feeling of superiority we get from our complete domination of the potato in modern agriculture. Think of Johnny Appleseed, who spread a plant that evolved in Asia across the United States, leading to our current culture where 55 million tonnes of apples are grown worldwide every year, with a value of about $10 billion. Or, think of cannibus, better known as Marijuana: people literally risk their lives and kill for a weed. How can we look at these plants and think that they are anything but evolutionary masterminds?

In general, we tend to give more credit to the wild species around us, as if they’ve achieved some feat that domesticated species have fallen short of by being unique, special and rare. But Pollan challenges this mental separation we make. What is truly the aim of a species in a broader sense – to be admired for its uniqueness, or to spread its habitat globally? The four plants he talks about have come to be grown on almost every continent in unbelievable quantities, and they have done it by producing compounds and characteristics that we find appealing. Is it really any different than producing nectar for a bee?

The Book… and More!

It’s a 304 page masterpiece clearly driven by Pollan’s own love for gardening and plants. Every chapter is packed with amazing information, hilarious anecdotes, and brilliant writing that makes it difficult to put down. It is sure to reshape the way you look at the plants around you, whether they be on our lawn or your plate.

Botany of Desire Cover

But, I’d be lying if I said I chose this moment to share this book with you randomly. In truth, there is another reason I wanted to tell you about this book today. I want to give you enough time to read the book before October 28th. Why then? Because PBS has decided to do a documentary centered around this book.

The two hour feature will explore visually many of the amazing spectacles that Pollan talks about, from the potato fields Idaho to the apple forests of Kazakhstan. It will take us inside the bustling tulip markets in Amsterdam, which deal in the billion dollar flower industry, to the highly controversial medical marijuana plants in America. It follows the natural history of the four plants that have so exquisitely linked themselves in our cultures, and will compliment the book with fascinating images that you have probably never seen before.

I highly recommend grabbing the book now, giving it a quick read, then catching the PBS documentary on October 28th! After all, the book is always better, but the movie is sure to be engrossing, entertaining, and eye-opening, too.