Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has been on my to-read-again list since earlier this year when I heard entertaining New York Times Book Review and NPR Books interviews of the author. He had just published Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, which sounded as though it would interest anyone who cooks or eats. I have not borrowed the new title yet, but when I found a library audiobook of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World available, I downloaded it instead.

The Botany of Desire was published in 2001 and predates Pollan's biggest bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan tells stories about four prominent plant families in the context of agricultural cultivation, attributing to each different qualities that people crave.
  • sweetness - the apple
  • beauty - the tulip
  • intoxication - marijuana
  • control - the potato
Each plant gets a lengthy chapter full of botanical information, cultural history, and personal accounts of Pollan's gardening efforts. His story about growing marijuana is both suspenseful and somewhat comic.

Pollan first, however, considers the apple, which in America is closely associated with the folk tales of Johnny Appleseed. The author profiles 19th century pioneer John Chapman, the real person on whom the Johnny Appleseed legend is based. Pollan spends much of the chapter myth-busting. The apple trees that grew from the seeds Chapman planted or sold produced apples that were usually not good for eating. Instead, they were bitter and small, only good for making hard cider - what most 19th century Americans actually wanted from apples. Apples were rarely eaten before Prohibition. Ironically, because apple seeds are genetically very unpredictable, Chapman's mass distribution of seeds established the U.S. as the country with greatest genetic diversity, which has led to all of today's great eating apples. The irony is that these varieties have to be maintained by grafting, not by seed planting.

Throughout the chapters, Pollan works the idea that the plants are really in control, using humans to assist their survival and development. By giving humans what they desire, the plant families prosper and adapt to new regions. Without humans, apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato populations would decline drastically.

Like the plants, The Botany of Desire satisfies human cravings - those for wickedly good stories and those for learning. It is still good a dozen years after its publication.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. Random House, 2001. 271p. ISBN 0375501290.

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