I waited a long time to read The Botany of Desire. When it first came out, the local library couldn’t keep it on the shelves; I ended up on long waiting lists that I never reached the end of before having to go back to college in the fall. So I was excited to be able to get it and read it. It’s not quite what I thought it would be, but that’s mostly in a good way. Michael Pollan has written a book that is thought-provoking, unexpected, and wide in scope.
The book starts with a short introduction, in which Pollan states that he is interested in how certain plants meet certain human desires: the apple satisfies sweetness; the tulip, beauty; marijuana, intoxication; and the potato meets our need for power. He also sets forthhis hypothesis that cultivated plants have used humans to their advantage in order to survive in conditions they wouldn’t normally be able to.
This was probably my biggest disappointment with the book — it seems a fairly obvious idea that plants we care for have used us for their purposes, just as we use them. It’s an idea I remember encountering in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (although on a smaller scale, and with bits that are much more integral to our physical makeup and survival), and, indeed, Pollan admits that The Selfish Gene played a role in the development of his book.
I loved reading the four chapters, though, because they don’t just push this idea. Pollan starts out with the apple. He discusses how wild apples are normally so bitter as to be inedible, and that grafting is the only way to ensure that a tree will bear tasty fruit. He also gives quite a history of John Chapman — Johnny Appleseed — that I quite enjoyed. Chapman was a character, spreading seeds (and thus unpredictable apple trees-to-be) into Ohio and, later, Indiana. He was a vegetarian who went barefoot and enjoyed best sleeping in hollowed out trees. His story is a charming one that I was completely unfamiliar with. It was a delight to find such a piece of American history included here.
The section on tulips was a little less interesting to me. The fact that color variation is due to a virus was news to me, but I’ve heard the story of tulipomania quite a few times. Pollan brings some insight to the craziness — mainly, that the Puritan conditions of the Netherlands led people to indulge their lust in something relatively harmless, rather than the more earthly pleasures their religion prohibited. Overall, though, I found it a little long and prone to navel-gazing.
Marijuana, the next chapter, discussed not just intoxication by that particular drug, but also talked about the historical use of many types of substances to induce altered states of consciousness. Pollan talks about the science at the cutting-edge (at least for the time the book was written) of how marijuana affects the brain. It’s incredibly fascinating to think about — substances in so many plants, that developed for so many purposes, also have a place in human culture and in human biology both in order to give us experiences we otherwise would never experience.
The lowly potato is the subject of the last section. I found it a bit preachy; Pollan spends most of the time talking about how the Monsanto corporation has developed a potato with genetic modifications that make the plant create its own pesticide. He visits some potato farmers, grows his own Monsanto potatoes, and eventually can’t eat the produce once they’re fully-grown, despite the fact that he’d already eaten them at one farmer’s home and in processed potato products. As a man who is an avid gardener — and who put himself up to the task of growing these potatoes — I would think that he should have at least given them a shot.
The Botany of Desire was a mix of biology, culture, and personal experience. It worked well in some situations, but not in others, but I think the good parts of the book overshadow the flat ones. Just don’t look for a straightforward cultural history of agriculture, and you’ll have an enjoyable read.