Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: Botany of Desire - A Plant's Eye View of the World

For some reason I want to say this is my first plant book review of a Fiction book.  However, Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World is not fiction.  I guess it's just that it's the first non-reference book I've reviewed on my blog.

Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan is more of an historical account of nature's interaction with plants - and specifically human kind's interaction with plants.  It chronicles the influences of man on "natural" selection.  It also conjectures about the influence of plants on humans! No, that wasn't a typo. :)

Plants have natural variations in their offspring.  Some of those offspring are more successful than others.  The variations that succeed are more likely to reproduce than those that fail.  This is natural selection, of course.  Well, you might have heard someone say that since humans are so all-powerful, we have begun to trump nature's selection by choosing ourselves what species we want to live, etc.  For instance, it might be that the prettiest rose survives, rather than the rose most immune to certain diseases.

We know that plants have generated natural variations that take advantage of other living beings to profit themselves.  For instance, many plants produce beautiful flowers that appeal to pollinators (bees and birds).  Why do the plants do this?  They do it for their own benefit - so that the plant gets pollinated and reproduces.

The premise of The Botany of Desire is this:
Maybe plants have been using us humans just like they do bees and birds.  Maybe plants have been specifically creating variations that appeal to humans in order to sustain their own populations.

It sounds kind of science fictiony and far-fetched, but on the most basic level you almost have to agree that it is true.  In many cases, the variations of plants that have been promoted by humans have not been for the betterment of the plant.  For instance, the apples we buy in the grocery store today are thickly coated with insecticides (more than ever before in history) for one specific reason.  Because we found an apple that we liked and have been spreading it forward by grafting (rather than allowing natural variation through seedlings), the apple tree has not adapted to the insects that feed on it.  If mankind were to have left the apple alone, it would have adapted to it's natural predators.  Therefore, it only makes sense that some plants would begin to make the best of a bad situation and start to produce variations that are appealing to humans, who have begun to more or less control the spread of plant life.

In the end, the premise is not so much that plants are using us, but that there is a reciprocal relationship.  Plants have merely begun to notice that we have desires and that by meeting our desires, they can benefit, as well.

Michael Pollan elegantly weaves his story, following four separate plant species which have appealed to different human desires:  the apple (sweetness), the rose (beauty), marijuana (intoxicant), and the potato (control).  The story is well-written, following Johnny Appleseed on his journey across the frontier, and recounting the quest for the perfect black tulip in Amsterdam.  Pollan also talks about his own experiences of growing marijuana and the genetic engineering that has been performed on the potato in recent decades.  The four plants are selected well in terms of highlighting four different desires, as well as progressing his story forward in time.  This is an entertaining and insightful book that I would recommend to any gardener.


  1. I loved that book. I thought the symbiotic relationship between humans and plants to be fascinating. Plus, Johnny Appleseed and I share a birthday, and he is featured prominently in the beginning of the book. ;-)

  2. What a nice thought. There is definitely a reciprocal relationship between plants and us humans. They provide the oxygen for us, which is helpful, of course! But there is so much more, as you state in your post. The book sounds like something I would enjoy:) It also sounds like a very clever way of looking at plants and humans.

  3. The book sounds fascinating, and I definitely think that we coexist with all of nature in a way we many types tend to ignore.
    I remember someone asking me once if I talked to my plants. I was told that they would always do better if they received praise. Right now, though, I am wondering if a few shouldn't be scolded. :-)