The botany of desire : a plant's-eye view of the world

by Michael Pollan

Hardcover, 2001




New York : Random House, cop. 2001.


Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers' genes far and wide. In "The botany of desire", Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulop, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind's most basic yearnings. And just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants have also benefited at least as much from their association with us. So who is really domesticating whom?… (more)

Media reviews

In other words, human desire shapes the plants that then shape human desire. In displaying for us, in his graceful and literate way, the intricacies of the mechanisms involved, Mr. Pollan shines a light on our own nature as well as on our implication in the natural world.
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It's an absorbing subject, and Pollan, like his hero, brings a clutch of quirky talents to the task of exploring it. He has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both
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shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places (George Eliot is somehow made to speak for the sense-attenuating value of a good high). Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Domestication is not something we do to plants... or at least, it's not only that. It's also something the plants do to us. Plants that are able to fulfill human desires (or those that can easily be modified to do so) have an advantage over other plants, since human beings will gladly do
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the work of spreading these plants' genes around the world. Pollan takes four plants, that fulfill four desires, as case studies, and gives us a taste of the history - both natural and cultural - of each: apples (for sweetness), tulips (for beauty), marijuana (for intoxication), and potatoes (for control).

Review: This book was not quite was I was expecting - it was a blend of evolutionary theory, microhistory, and cultural musings, rather than any single one of them straight up - but I enjoyed all of the elements, and found their combination interesting. Pollan makes his evolutionary argument almost exclusively in the introduction, and he presents it thoroughly and very clearly. His argument - that the plants are basically using us, the same way they they use bumblebees and other pollinators, to spread their genes - was simultaneously very clever and not that surprising; I've read a fair bit about the evolution of domestication, but I'd never thought about it from that angle before... but once he pointed it out, I was like "Oh, obviously." His language is elegant and accessible to the layperson, and while he does rarely slip into some teleological language, for the most part he's very scientifically very precise.

I also found the chapters full of history just as fascinating. There's plenty of good trivia, which is one of the reasons I like microhistories so much - for example, the "flames" of color on the bottom of multicolored tulips? Are actually the symptoms of a viral infection. Pollan occasionally leans on his metaphors a little hard; he's particularly taken with the dichotomy between Apollonian order and Dionysian wildness, and how it's embodied in each of the four plants. It's certainly a relevant point for a book on domestication and desire, but he returns to it so often that it starts to get a little wearing. He also engages in some pretty out-there speculation, most of which is interesting and entirely plausible, but which occasionally had me wishing he'd stick a little closer to the facts. There are also a few places where the book is beginning to show its age a little bit: the neurochemistry of the endocannabinoid system is much better understood now than it was a decade ago, the facts on the drug war are almost certainly out of date, and I'd be interested (and maybe a little terrified) to read an update on the current state of genetically modified plants.

Despite these minor troubles, though, I really did enjoy this book. Pollan's science is sound, his history is interesting and well-presented, his language is more lyrical than you might expect from your average non-fiction writer, and this book provided quite a lot of food (hah!) for thought. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for anyone who likes popular science or microhistories (or both!), or for anyone who has ever wondered why some plants but not others make it into our gardens.
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LibraryThing member seanpmurray
Pollan's mixed salad of history, anecdote, and light science is nutritous brain food. More importantly, it goes down easy. The prose is florid (but never fragrant) and the content never fails to raise an eyebrow or upset a preconceived notion. A quick and worthwhile read.
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I'm not an agronomist, a scientist, or even a gardener, but I found "The Botany of Desire" pretty fascinating. This one is incredibly dense: we hear about the history, genes, varieties, social consequences, survival strategies, and the potential future of four well-known plants. In many ways, it's
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positively eye opening. Pollan emphasizes how much these plants have changed and describes both how we've changed these plants and how they've changed us. As the subtitle promises, he even goes out of his way to explain why a certain plant -- or insect, or bacteria -- might benefit from changes in often unexpected ways. "The Botany of Desire" leaves the reader with the impression that nature's logic necessarily resemble our own. Nor, it argues, does our view of these plants necessarily resemble our ancestors': there's a lot of historical weirdness to be found here. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the role of hard cider in frontier America, a man who made it his life's work to preserve old, out-of-fashion apple varieties, and the madness that famously affected Dutch tulip collectors in the 1600s. For contrast, we hear about factory-like potato farms and the intensely futuristic way that marijuana is grown today. Our great-grandfathers might not recognize how we now grow and consume these plants. Pollan seems to want to communicate that what the average person considers "natural" is really anything but. That's an important perspective to have.

The other thing that makes "The Botany of Desire" such a good read the obvious passion that Pollan has for his subject. More than just an understanding of plants, the author might actually be said to have real empathy for them. His descriptions of his garden are nothing short of rapturous. He comes off as a man who's most at piece when he's got his hands in the dirt. Of course, I expect that not everyone will enjoy this aspect of the book. Pollan's an excellent writer, but he doesn't write much like the average scientist, and I couldn't help thinking that some of his tastes and priorities were a bit bougie. He even lives in Connecticut, for Pete's sake! Readers who want a more technical, straightforward look at plant development might want to look elsewhere. But I'm sort of a beginner here, so I really enjoyed this one. Maybe you will, too.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
I am no friend of Richard Dawkin's "selfish gene' theory, and therefore have very little sympathy for the idea postulated by Michael Pollan in the opening essay of this book that apples manipulate humans. The essay is a good medium to put forward thought provoking ideas, and provoking ideas can be
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very interesting, but that does not mean they are necessarily true. Besides, as Pollan adopts this idea from Dawkin,it can hardly be considered a novelty.

Nonetheless, Pollan has a lot to say, and has written four very interesting essays, about four plants, three of which, at least, are all very well known to readers. The histories Pollan chooses to describe in relation to each are very interesting, and stick in the mind, for example the story of Johnny Appleseed and American Frontier history.

In Pollan's description of his first-hand experience planting Monsanto GM potatoes, it is shocking to learn that these spuds come with a licence, almost like software, spelling out in detail what one may and may not do with those potatoes.

I was surprised by the profoundly interesting essay written on marijuana, the longest essay by far, which may betray Pollan's personal interest in this herb.

Very interesting, and very well-written.
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LibraryThing member Clif
This is an enjoyable book that wanders back and forth through the subjects of botany, history, and literary philosophy. An example of the later is quoted below:

"For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature's double nature--that is, the contending energies of creation
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and dissolution, the spring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it--right there, in a flower--the meaning of life?"

By the time a reader has finished this book they'll know more about apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes than ever before. And along the way perhaps the reader will have picked up a slightly enhanced understanding the interaction of humans and plant life. And as indicated in the quote above, they will be introduced to the author's possible insight into the meaning of life. Every topic in this book was subjected to the Apollo vs. Dionysus analysis somewhere along the line.

In the section on marijuana the author provides a detailed description of what it means in terms of neurochemistry to be high on marijuana. This information was new to me. I got the impression this subject has not been fully researched and there still remains some speculation in the descriptions. He did make the definitive statement that nobody has ever died from an overdose of THC (active ingredient in marijuana). That certainly cannot be said for alcohol. So why is alcohol legal and marijuana outlawed? They both can pose a danger to society if misused, but one is publicly advertised with the caveat, "Please drink responsibly." The other is a crime to possess or use. Surely there's no rational basis for this difference.

The last section on the potato came down pretty hard on genetically engineered plants. I am not as emotionally opposed to this science as some appear to be. I'm in favor of asking questions and looking for problems that may arise. But I'm willing to eat genetically engineered food in the meantime. I figure that if we wait to be absolutely sure of no adverse consequences before using advances in science, all scientific and technological advances will cease.

My hat is off to Michael Pollan for being able to write an interesting narrative around rather ordinary topics. He has the skills of a talented story teller to combine historical and scientific facts with tales of his own personal adventures and interviews with other people. I had to give the book five stars because, quite frankly, I found it to be an enjoyable and interesting book.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
If this man is going to write about plants and desire, he should change his name to Pollen. Seriously, this is a lyrically written and well-thought out meditation on plants and their relationship to humans. Do we domesticate plants or do they domesticate us? Pollan’s thesis is that plants have
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selected qualities that appeal to humans as their way of propagating their species, with much success. While Pollan calls this “a plant’s-eye vie of the world,” it is more of a biography of certain species and ruminations on his experiences with them. It explores four themes through the stories of four plants: sweetness / apple, beauty / tulip, intoxication / marijuana, and control / potato. Each chapter also tells the story of an historical event related to the plant from interesting perspectives: Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman cultivating apple trees on the American frontier, tulipmania in Holland, the War on Drugs causing an upsurge in underground cannabis cultivation (also in Amsterdam), and comparison and contrast of the Irish potato blight with current day genetic engineering of potatoes. This book is fascinating and well written and certainly thought provoking.

“All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.” (p. xv)

“. . . nature is not only to be found ‘out there’; it is also ‘in here,’ in the apple and the potato, in the garden and the kitchen, even in the brain of a man beholding the beauty of a tulip or inhaling the smoke from a burning cannabis flower. My wager is that when we can find nature in these sorts of places as readily as we now find it in the wild, we’ll have traveled a considerable distance toward understanding our place in the world in the fullness of its complexity and ambiguity.” (p. xxiv)

“. . . there are relatively few things in nature whose beauty people haven’t had to invent. Sunrise, the plumage of birds, the human face and form, and flowers . . . Mountains were ugly until just a few centuries ago . . . forests were the “hideous” haunts of Satan until the Romantics rehabilitated them.” (p. 66)

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins, term of memes (a unit of memorable cultural information). (p. 148)

“. . . forgetting is vastly underrated as a mental operation – indeed, that it is a mental operation, rather than, as I’d always assumed, strictly the breakdown of one . . . forgetting is also one of the most important things healthy brains do, almost as important as remembering. Think how quickly the sheer volume and multitude of sensory information we receive every waking minute would overwhelm our consciousness if we couldn’t quickly forget a great deal more of it than we remember.” (p. 160)

“In addition to energy in the form of carbohydrates, potatoes supplied considerable amounts of protein and vitamins B and C; all that was missing was vitamin A, and that a bit of milk could make up. (So it turns out that mashed potatoes are not only the ultimate comfort food but all a body really needs.) (p. 200-01)

“To shrink the sheer diversity of life, as the grafters and monoculturists and genetic engineers would do, is to shrink evolution’s possibilities, which is to say, the future open to all of us.” (p. 244)
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LibraryThing member Yllom
Do we choose what to plant in our gardens? Or do the plants choose us? Learn about four common plants and the human desires they inspire: the apple and sweetness; the tulip and beauty; marijuana and intoxication; and the potato and control. Pollan weaves an interesting tale with observations from
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philosophy, natural history, botany, and his own gardening experience.
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LibraryThing member jwl
This is one of my favorite books. It recounts the history and the way humans have interacted and manipulated several plants (potatos, apples, tulips and marijuana). It's extremely interesting and informative.
LibraryThing member dr_zirk
Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire follows an intriguing premise, and even if he ends up not really developing that premise, his chapters on marijuana and the potato are highly thought-provoking. The earlier chapters on apples and tulips are considerably less interesting, largely because Pollan
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simply has less to say about those crops that is either original or stimulating. But his ruminations on monoculture (the potato) and mental freedom (marijuana) are well-written, thoroughly engaging, and generally spot-on in their conclusions: the book is a worthy read for the contents of the last two chapters alone.
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LibraryThing member raptorrunner
Do plants transform themselves according to their use by humans, or are we transforming *them* ????
LibraryThing member idiotgirl
I would be happy to have written this book. Such a great idea. And being from Idaho, who can question a whole chapter on the potato!!!
LibraryThing member micronoclast
I really enjoyed this book, which is essentially the history of three plants, based on Pollan's conceit that these plants are manipulating humans to ensure their continued survival. It's a little like reading John McPhee's book Oranges, but with an agenda of sorts.
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
Just changed my mind -- one of my next books will be The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. He looks at how humans fill their desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control through domesticated plants such as apples, tulips, pot (cannabis), and potatoes.
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What does this have to do with Desiring God?

i haven't read the book yet, but i have heard that Pollan sees Johnny Appleseed (Chapman) as a wild, paradoxical figure who drew no divide between the natural world and the divine, and who transformed the everyday landscape into the mystical and the ecstatic. Pollan compares Chapman to Dionysus (the god who taught the Greeks to make wine) who is the exact opposite of Apollo (the god of clear boundaries, order, and control over nature).

The greeks believed beauty was the offspring of the opposing tendencies of Apollo and Dionysus. Pollan said "the tulip is that rare figure of Apollonian beauty in a horticultural pantheon mainly presided over by Dionysus," and "color breaks . . . can perhaps best be understood as an explosive outbreak of the Dionysian in the too-strict Apollonian world of the tulip -- and the Dutch bourgeoisie."

Pollan traces the evolution of flowers to a time before the Greeks and their gods though. Apparently, flowers and fruits appeared during the Cretaceoous period, and enlisted animals in a coevolutionary contract -- transportation in exchange for nutrition. Beauty became a survival strategy as plants with bigger, more fragrant, brighter blossoms were able to thrive.

Considering that we are part-and-parcel of the natural world, going beyond the book i'm looking forward to thinking about:
* why Jews and Christians historically discouraged devotion to flowers
* Christianity's current acceptance of symbolic flowers
* our juxtaposition of flowers with decadence, death, and/or evil (such as Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal)
* the meaning of "beauty by design" and why symmetry is important
* quotes such as: "mutations that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment shaped by human desire" and "For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity's ever-shifting ideals of beauty."
* the intersection between our desire for beauty (including God's beauty) with a more corrupt desire for conspicuous display (as seen in flower gardens or the Chinese tradition of bound feet)
* whether or not beauty existed before flowers
* Pollans' statement that "without flowers, we would not be"
* how plants that help us alter our consciousness became sacraments as they answered our human desire for transcendence by disabling our moment-by-moment memory and freeing us to sense things as though for the first time and revel in its wonderment
* while it's understandable that pot is taboo because of its ability to severe links between actions and consequences, unleash inhibitions, and encourage indolence, it's also interesting to consider that it's also opposed to the idea that the self and society stand apart from nature, rather than having transcendence tripped by molecules flowing through the brain, nor that some of our brightest cultural ideas were born from drug use
* whether our attempt to control nature and wilderness are a form of hubris that ultimately cut us off from experiencing God?

Anyway, i'm looking forward to this read.
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LibraryThing member mbowen
michael pollan is the man i want my son to follow. he has singlehandedly for me turned science back into the direction of biology and away from math and technology. if that sounds oxymoronic it is perhaps because we so easily associated math and technology directly with hardware and the entire skew
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the cold war has had on american science. when i grew up, thinking about science and brains meant thinking about rockets, space, nuclear engergy, electrical, civil and mechanical engineering. the holy grail of understanding stood at the level of maxwells equations and the high priests of all were the theoretical physicists. other scientific minds like watson, crick and darwin were lesser lights whose duty was to inspire elementary-level battle against religious fundamentalists. but there was no way that studying plants could rival studying steel. pollan introduces the possibility for 4H to become more popular than the computer club, the botany of desire is the manifesto.

over the past ten years, computer geeks like me have only stopped to turn our heads toward the natural world for the occasional publication. jared diamond's guns germs and steel has been about as far as most of us have been willing to follow that path. but 'the botany of desire' has ignited a curiousity about the natural world i haven't felt since the first time i followed jacques and his sons out on the calypso. talking with dolphins and chimps has only generated a vocabulary of a few hundred words with a few dozen researchers at most, but pollan illumniates a dialog between plants and humans that goes back dozens of generations in hundreds of ways around the world. distilling it down to tulips, apples, cannibis and potatoes, pollans smoothly scientific and philosophical narrative has generated a kernel of interest that could easily go in dozens of directions. each has gotten me eager to get my hands dirty.

as i look back, i find it is pollan who has singly nabbed me in this regard. i can still recall the fascination i had with his april 1997 article in harper's magazine 'opium made easy'. as well, his recent new york time's magazine article 'this steer's life' grabbed me out of complacency. for me, he has become the james glick of the natural world. yet everything he speaks of is so much more personal. it's easy to speculate about what cellular technology might do, and so much of our admiration of scientific discovery has much to do with futurism. pollan, however uses scientific discipline to investigate what already is, which forces us to apply our minds to problems and opportunities that already exist rather than to the accelleration of anticipation on what might be if only. yes, bluetooth wireless might allow me to do x y and z in tomorrows world, but there are potatoes and apples in the market today which represent an extraordinarily complex mix (or lack thereof) of genetic science. that i can exercise intellectual judgement over this matter today excites me much more that the possibility that i might be a smart consumer tomorrow. even better, that i might become a gardener today and that there is a fight over 'open source' seeds today is far more appealing than parallel matters in software. i am what i think but even more what i eat. pollan give me so many new ways to think about what i eat.

the botany of desire is delightfully entangled in human emotions as the title suggests. there is more than science here to contemplate. there is an entire cognitive history to contemplate. in this regard, pollan becomes a medium after borges as he introduces the reader into the contingent memesphere of plants whose influence changes human destiny - a hidden world suddenly made visible. how is any boy observing a flower bound to act in the flower's interest like a bee? the flower makes us feel. the flower makes us think. the flower makes us pick it. suddenly i understand the conflict i have when my daughter picks the random dandelion to blow its seeds. it's a weed i say, but who can resist it? and in the end i let her blow. i pluck daisys and check the fidelity of my love, i cannot resist looking for the lucky clover. we have coevolved to do so and our present is the the result of the irresistable attractions of humans and plants.

there is much more than an engrossing read here. for me, a world has been offered and i eagerly anticipate engagement. by the way, the bibliography points to multiple dimensions of new knowledge. do not miss this book. it is crucial.
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LibraryThing member kpasternack02
Changed my perspective on plants, evolution, the food change...fascinating. The last chapter on Desire/Control: The Potato was exceptionally interesting - and fear-inspiring.
LibraryThing member suziam48
I never laughed so hard -- while learning so much!
LibraryThing member mykl-s
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2002)
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Outstanding. I have yet to see a Michael Pollan book that isn't endlessly interesting. This was my introduction to Michael... It's a good place to start on your journey of changing the way you see the world and eat.
LibraryThing member ShiraC
I love this book, but I have no idea how to characterize it. It contains a social history of four plants: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana. The underlying thesis is that each of these plants has shaped US as much as we have shaped them. I used this as a text in my homeschooled
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daughter's science curriculum and recommend it highly.
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LibraryThing member GlennBell
I really liked this book. The author provides interesting facts and provides a fresh perspective. He sometimes gets a bit off topic with Johnny Appleseed, but still very interesting. The bit on the potatoe leaves me with a desire to eat more organic food.
LibraryThing member nopressure1
An in-depth look at four plants – apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes, and how these plants have effected humans AND history.
LibraryThing member isetziol
Although slow in a few spots, this is a fine book. It's a fascinating look at our relationship (co-evolution) with four plants: apple, tulip, pot, and potato.
LibraryThing member Hera
A truly inspiring book. I particularly liked the section on cannabis growing. I'm not sure his central thesis - that plants shape us to their will through being desirable to humans - can be proven but I thought it was delightful. Of interest to anyone who gardens.
LibraryThing member RachelAnne1
I will never look at a potatoe the sam way again...
LibraryThing member rohwyn
It's hard for a book about evolutionary biology to be entertaining, but this one really is. The prose is brilliant, the humor is wry, and you get the impression the author spends a lot of time in his garden, both in frustration and awe.


Indies Choice Book Award (Honor Book — Adult Nonfiction — 2002)
Natural World Book Prize (Shortlist — 2002)
Connecticut Book Award (Winner — Nonfiction — 2002)



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