The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
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Working in his garden one day, Michael Pollan hit pay dirt in the form of an idea: do plants, he wondered, use humans as much as we use them? While the question is not entirely original, the way Pollan examines this complex coevolution by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants is unique. The result is a fascinating and engaging look at the true nature of domestication.

In making his point, Pollan focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. He uses the history of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how both the apple's sweetness and its role in the production of alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west, thus greatly expanding the plant's range. He also explains how human manipulation of the plant has weakened it, so that "modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop." The tulipomania of 17th-century Holland is a backdrop for his examination of the role the tulip's beauty played in wildly influencing human behavior to both the benefit and detriment of the plant (the markings that made the tulip so attractive to the Dutch were actually caused by a virus). His excellent discussion of the potato combines a history of the plant with a prime example of how biotechnology is changing our relationship to nature. As part of his research, Pollan visited the Monsanto company headquarters and planted some of their NewLeaf brand potatoes in his garden--seeds that had been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide. Though they worked as advertised, he made some startling discoveries, primarily that the NewLeaf plants themselves are registered as a pesticide by the EPA and that federal law prohibits anyone from reaping more than one crop per seed packet. And in a interesting aside, he explains how a global desire for consistently perfect French fries contributes to both damaging monoculture and the genetic engineering necessary to support it.

Pollan has read widely on the subject and elegantly combines literary, historical, philosophical, and scientific references with engaging anecdotes, giving readers much to ponder while weeding their gardens. --Shawn Carkonen

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 tulip, 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, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

Customer Reviews:

  • Fascinating reading
    I have had this book since 2003 and loaned or recommended it to all my friends. It is a great story that I zipped right though.

    Pollan's writing is informative and pleasurable. Second Nature & Botany of Desire provide an interesting perspective on our relationship with other living things in the garden and larger natural world. His insightful observations about nature and biology will ring true for many, especially organic gardeners.
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  • one of the best books I've ever read
    I can't say enough about this book. A history of four things that grow presented originally, thoughtfully, and thoroughly - as well as how they have influenced the culture of humanity (and the writing itself is excellent). Profound in many ways, this is a book that you will not be able to put down. Thank you, Michael Pollan....more info
  • somewhat uneven, but enjoyable
    If you come to this book with the right expectations, it is actually an
    enjoyable read. This is not really a popular science book, since it does
    not seemed to be balanced or sufficiently researched for the most part.
    However, Pollan's writing is engaging and humorous. He does present
    a number of interesting hypothesis, ranging from the thought provoking
    to the silly.

    Unfortunately, the first chapter on apples is the weakest in the
    collection. However, the book does pick up in the next chapter, and I
    think the last two chapters are the strongest. The chapter on potatoes
    is engaging and, in parts, scary. It certainly needs to be taken with a
    grain of salt. However, I think his main point that we simply do not
    know what the long term effects of modern agricultural practices will
    be is a sound one.
    ...more info
  • Boy, did I learn a lot!
    Obviously, I still have a lot to learn. I found this book completely fascinating and anything I wasn't sure about I looked up and anything I became interested in I investigated. Great stuff! This was recommended reading for college biology....more info
  • Good backround
    I read this after reading "The Omnivore's Dilemina".
    It's good. The tulip frenzy has been in the news lately and this has an interesting write up about that.

    I also really enjoyed the write-up about apples! That's a bit of American History I didn't know about. I think it's a good read for someone interested in food....more info
  • A Treat.
    Michael Pollan's writing style is unusual, but engaging in a chatty, "round the table" type way. The content is broad and diverse. Pollan is comfortable going lateral, deviating readily to highlight some unusual aspects of the material being explored, and just as readily leading the reader on, to consider other interesting dynamics and perspectives.

    I would encourage anyone interested in the Biology / Ecology type areas, and teachers in particular, to consider this book. I believe it definitely encourages one to consider fresh perspectives on (and a greater respect for) the interactions between mankind and our plant world.

    (It is a book that I have already added to the "Must Read" list for my Gifted & Talented students at High School.)...more info
  • natural history of flowers, food, and pot
    pollan approaches natural history like a journalistic reporter. he digs, reads, talks, and relentlessly pursues his topic until he sees it as clearly as possible for his readers. he gives you the natural history of apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes so that we can better see our relationship with plants from both sides. he avoids the common assumptions and polarized narratives that each side spins out. for example, he spends time with a monsanto rep and sees some good in the apollonion approach before finally coming back to the need to reconsider our approach - monoculture - and it's effects on the future of farming and diversity. he is not lazy. he explores the issues and asks the big questions. he gives you references for follow-up reading. he shares insights about marijuana; why it is taboo, what experience are we after, and why we need it back in our garden. i loved the quote "memory is the enemy of wonder". the "omnivore's dilemma" is more of the same and done even better.
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  • Fascinating read
    Botany of Desire was recommended to me last summer. It covers the stories of four plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. Interestingly, it reads similarly to The Beak of the Finch in that it discusses the nature of evolution. However, unlike the finches, the focus of this book is on how communion with humans, rather than isolation, has driven the evolution of these plants. While there are many items of interest in this book, I will primarily focus on what I did not know prior to reading it.

    Apples
    The story of the apple starts with John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. What I didn't know here was that the apple was spread throughout the new world as a source of alcohol rather than food. It makes perfect historical sense, but I had never given it much thought. The "apple cider" and "applejack" about which I had previously read without consideration was a form of moonshine that was extremely potent and must have gone a long way towards making frontier life more bearable. The fact that apples spread the taste of "sweetness" was also something that I had not previously appreciated. Before the European honey bees swarmed the US, and before cane and beet sugar were available, most people would seldom get to taste that flavor, so it was to be savored.

    Another thing that I didn't know about apples was that they don't breed true. Like most kids, I tried planting apple trees from seed, but I never stayed interested in the project for the 4-6 years it would take to actually get apples from the resulting progeny. If I had, I would have found out that each seed has randomized genetics, and therefore makes entirely different types of apples. (I now imagine each apple to be like Doctor Who, playing genetic Russian roulette with each seed.) So, all the apples we eat are cloned.

    Tulips
    The tulip story wasn't quite so interesting, because I was already aware of the tulip boom and associated economic disaster. What was interesting was the "college" system of bidding on tulips. Apparently, if you wanted to "invest" in tulip futures, you first went to the bar. (That would have been a huge warning for me but hey, I'm not Dutch, what do I know?) Once there, the seller and bidder would each write down a price, and hand the slates to a pair of trusted proxies. The proxies would then dicker over the price and return something that they thought was fair. If they both agreed, the deal went through and both parties paid a fee for doing business. If they both disagreed, the deal was canceled. If only one disagreed, he had to pay a fine. . . The fees and fines then went to buying drinks for everyone at the bar.

    Yeah. Day trading looks like a reputable career in comparison.

    Marijuana
    The marijuana story was fascinating for someone who only ever thought of the plant as "ditch weed". Apparently, since it was criminalized, the "gardeners" have been tinkering with the genetics trying to balance the best of the different plants, maximizing the THC and minimizing the other toxic chemicals. The descriptions of modern grow rooms were astonishing, describing the millions of dollars in technology needed to grow these hybrids, the billions that they're worth and frighteningly, how growers get just as habituated to the cash flow and genetic improvement process as the buyers do to the product.

    Another interesting side observation that Michael Pollan made was that the incidents of shamans/visionaries have gone down as global nutrition levels have gone up. Not sure if I buy the link, but it was interesting to consider.

    Potato(e)s
    The potato section was mostly about direct genetic manipulation by the Monsanto corporation. It's supposed to be a story about control, but actually reads like a story about blind hope and arrogance. It gets into a natural insecticide known as Bt that Monsanto merged into potato(e)s. While this has been around for millennia, it has never existed in sufficient concentration to promote evolutionary resistance until now. The nightmare scenario is that of breeding super-insects that are not only immune to our existing insecticides, but also immune to the natural ones -- resulting in a population explosion of pest-insects that utterly destroys the global food supply. Monsanto's answer is basically "we'll deal with that when it happens".

    I can follow the logic, but have my doubts that it would get quite so bad. Again though, it's interesting to think about.

    The other item of interest from this section was about "net necrosis" in Russet Burbanks. When I was young, I remember getting the occasional french fry that had a dark spot. This was caused by net necrosis -- a harmless spotting of the potato. The large fast food companies believe (probably correctly) that their customers do not like spotty fries, so they will refuse an entire batch if one potato shows this condition. So, to prevent this from happening, the commercial potato producers spray the entire field with nerve toxin, and keep all of their people out of the fields for up to five days to keep them from being killed.

    Then they sell the potato(e)s to us to eat.

    I already had potato(e)s on my "organic-only" list for pesticide reasons. After reading this book, they're going to stay there.

    Generally
    Really, most of the book was a fascinating read, but the only bit that probably changed my life is the net necrosis stuff. That said, it's a well written book and the author's voice rings through so it's more than a selection of facts. If you like plants, it's worth reading. If you don't like plants, but enjoy thinking, read it... you might start liking plants.

    Of course, if you are botanophobic, you should avoid it (and I commend you for reading this far without fleeing in terror). ...more info
  • A little flowery
    It is certainly an unusual approach to a topic and I did learn some interesting facts. However, our book club felt that it was a little long winded in some parts. The most eye opening section was the Potato - I am not sure I will ever eat a french fry, or potato chip again....more info
  • Informative, great read!
    For anyone who interested about the way that humans are changing plants and agriculture to "better meet our desire" this is the book to read. For a term paper I wrote on GMOs, I was especially inspired by Pollan's chapter on the Potato. It is a great book, very interesting, and very fun to read!...more info
  • A Fascinating Read
    The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan challenges the notion that mankind can control the natural world, subjugating plants to the will of the gardener. Through a discussion of four plants closely associated with human cultivation: apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato, Pollan demonstrates that organisms which possess traits desirable to the gardener have been able manipulate humans to cultivate them. Each plant has a different strategy for assuring that humans will continue to include it in their gardens. The apple, for example, is an extremely diverse species whose seeds contain millions of possible variations of both the fruit produced and the tree itself. Whether one is looking to make hard cider or munch on a crisp green fruit, the apple tree has the genetic code to produce the fruit humans look for.
    In The Botany of Desire, Pollan focuses on the four plants mentioned above, placing each plant in a category, and explains how plants within that category possess characteristics which make them desirable to humans. The apple and other fruits appeal to our sense of taste, and, if fermented, our desire for inebriation. The tulip appeals to mankind's sense of beauty; marijuana, our desire to achieve an altered state of mind; the potato our need for nourishment and desire to genetically engineer crops. In short, each of these plants is successful in an evolutionary sense because it causes us to cultivate it.
    Although Pollan's book is an intriguing read, I found it unsettling that he often rattles off facts and figures without citing a direct source, such as the assertion on page 219: "a potato farmer in Idaho spends roughly $1,950 an acre (mainly on chemicals, electricity and water)." Pollan does include a few pages of sources in the back of his book, but he could make a stronger argument that would stand up to academic scrutiny with the addition of endnotes.
    In addition to a vast amount of research and traveling prior to writing this book, Pollan makes The Botany of Desire a quality literary work by using recurring themes to tie the four parts of the book together. Through returning to his garden at many points over the course of the book, Pollan is able to tie all four of his subjects into a common space. Approaching the reader as a fellow gardener gives him or her a sense of connection to Pollan and his garden. By the end of the book, I felt as though I knew Michael Pollan and his garden intimately. Another example of this continuity is Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. Dionysus appears in both chapters one and three, were Pollan relates him to cider, Johnny Appleseed, and mind-altering substances.
    Overall, Pollan's clear style and journalistic narrative flows easily and keeps the reader entertained throughout the book. He makes effective use of descriptive details and personal experiences to relate to the reader as he argues his theme of plants manipulating humans to include them in their gardens. The Botany of Desire is a must read for anyone interested in how plants we encounter on a daily basis cause us to cultivate them around the globe.
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  • Who wouldn't love this book?
    You'll notice that a huge majority of readers found this book to be informative, thought provoking, and even enjoyable. It's the type of reading material that sticks with you, and changes your view of the world. It has changed my eating habits and gardening routines. A very few people felt the book was worthless. Hmmmmmmm. Once you read the book you'll probably be able to figure out who those people are. Gee, I don't know... maybe anyone connected with the Monsanto Corporation? Or other greedy monoagriculturalists? Anyone who doesn't care one bit about the future of the planet, or the health of its people? Yup, there is surely a population out there that would take exception to the facts presented in this eye-opening book. ...more info
  • very honest supplier
    This supplier made a error and sent the product for FREE!!!
    Great experience. A++++...more info
  • Animistically Delicious
    The aptly-named Pollan is a delicious writer, and in this book he calls into question our long-standing assumption that human consciousness allows us to be the only species which imposes our will onto other beings. Using four examples - the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato - he describes how the widespread planting of certain crops over others may have come through the plants' volition as much as through human choice. He points out that plants use animal desires to their own benefit: for example, the bumblebee chooses certain flowers over others precisely because those flowers have evolved to please bumblebees. Therefore, contrary to our initial interpretation, the bee is actually being used by the plant. Similarly, Pollan argues, humans choose certain plants to fulfill our desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control - and plants like the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato have co-evolved to best exploit these desires. So who is using whom? In an exquisite animistic introduction, Pollan points this out:

    "We're prone to overestimate our own agency in nature. ... but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject. That's why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did as a way to conquer the trees." (p. xxi)

    Pollan's writing is anything but dry. In the opening chapter, he discusses the forces by which apples spread in terms which read like a detective novel. He first reveals that apple trees never repeat their predecessors' genetic templates; in their case, ontogeny does not replicate phylogeny. In fact, every single seed will grow to become its own unique being, supremely adaptable to, and largely created by, its surroundings. All of the commercial apples we enjoy now, those with names like Jonathan or Golden Delicious, grow on cloned graftings from an original individual tree. Apple trees are therefore one glorious example of nature's continual wild experimentation.

    The chapter then goes into the history of Johnny Appleseed, a major force by which apples spread across a new continent. It seems that the main vision we Americans hold of Appleseed, that of a happy-go-lucky barefoot eco-freak merrily planting seeds hither and yon for a wholesome farmer populace to enjoy a fresh apple pie after a hard day's work, is only part of the story. Actually, Pollan reveals, those early apples were not soft or sweet at all, and the only reason the folk of the harsh interior wanted them was for their capacity to be fermented into hard alcoholic cider! The mystically-inclined Appleseed is then likened to an American Dionysus, in wonderfully funny language: "He was a kind of satyr without the sex - a Protestant satyr, you might say..." (p.35).

    The Botany of Desire calls into question centuries of assumptions about the dominance of human consciousness and the locus of ecological control. It illustrates important and timely ideas concerning an animistic, volitional-reciprocity worldview through rigorous botanical and historical investigation, all wrapped up in a journalist's engaging writing style. Go read it, and then feed it to your friends. Who knows what might grow?

    (Note: This review first appeared in the journal of the Anthropology of Consciousness 13(1), 2002.)
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  • Nature from a different perspective.
    An interesting, although not totally novel, perspective on the success of but four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and the potato, all of which hold a prominent place in our history. And all have an interesting story to tell, however, that story could have been told in much fewer words as Mr. Pollan's writing becomes a little tedious. Aside from that major fault I found much to learn here, about the individual plants, and their effect on our history. I admit though to be unconvinced with an allusion of conscious design provided the flora. I've noticed this consideration given by other authors, and wonder if it isn't it's own form of mania....more info
  • A mind-expanding change of perspective
    The easy and subtle way this book allows readers to view life on earth from an entirely different perspective is unprecedented (at least I've never read anything like it.) Pollan's style is so smooth, so full of humor and humanity, it's impossible not to become totally captivated. Even for someone like myself who doesn't read a lot of non-fiction, this is a true page-turner. Pollan's hilarious and inspiring dissection of Johnny Appleseed, reality versus myth, is in itself worth the price of admission....more info
  • Botany of Desire
    Wonderfully written book. Just scholarly enough to be serious as well as a good read....more info
  • Well-researched and informative
    This is a most interesting, well researched book. The author takes a look at the industry of food production from the perspective of both the individual producer as well as large agribusinesses. He actually purchases a steer and follows its life from grazing through slaughter. His detailed descriptions made his personal experiences very real to the reader. It is a book that you think about long after you finish reading, and I recommend it highly....more info
  • Makes Botony Very Interesting
    This is a great book, that goes very well with the other books Michael Pollan has written (In Defense of Food and The Omnivores Dilemma). A little different style from those two, as it takes the view from the plant, rather than our view of the plant. Great look at how the plants listed in the book (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes) actually have a hold on us, as opposed to the other way around.

    Great book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in botany, gardening, organic food, or anything else related to that.

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  • Another Great Book by Pollan
    I recently finished Botany of Desire and Pollan's more recent Omnivore's Dilemma. Both books are full of great factual information about what we eat, the implications of doing such, and the forces of nature that bind us tightly with other plants and animals. I loved both of these books. It opened my eyes to so many things that were both enlightening and, at times, frightening. Even though the content of both books is full of factual information, Pollan communicates it in a fashion that makes for an enjoyable read. I suggest getting them both....more info
  • a must read
    I read this after a review and it was spellbinding. The auther writes about the plantworld in near magical terms. The last chapter on potatoes should be required reading for all students. Amazing book and I've already bought two and gave them away as gifts to like minded friends....more info
  • Interested in horticulture? You'll love this book
    A fascinating look at the evolution of plants and mankind's impact on that. It left me with a deeper and more complex appreciation for nature. ...more info
  • Great read for everyone
    I found this book a few years ago by accident, lucky me! The information contained in thei book was fascinating. Who would have thought so much of a potato? ...more info
  • Literary History
    Michael Pollan is a journalist, a plant-lover, and a curious man. The combination of these results in some brilliant and enthralling prose on the human relation to plant life in a way that is new to the non-biologists in the audience. ...more info
  • Such a good read for us beginners!
    This was a gift,and what a great gift! I hear botanists say it is not a substantive book, but I am not a botanist! I loved it, everyone I loaned it to loved it. Made me look at my tulips and apples differently, and the birds and the bees and everything -- and as an organic gardener and cook it made me appreciate the natural thoughtfulness behind the varieties we grow and enjoy! Buy, read, and gift his book -- from 16 to 85 have enjoyed it!...more info