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

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

by Michael Pollan

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The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America

In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant—though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds’s most basic yearnings—and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588360083
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2001
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 95,732
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Michael Pollan is the author of seven books, including Cooked: The Natural History of Transformation, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world.


San Francisco Bay Area, California

Date of Birth:

February 6, 1955

Place of Birth:

Long Island, New York


Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Desire: Sweetness
Plant: The Apple

(Malus domestica)

If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806—somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say—you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you’d have caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed the scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting in the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.

The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already well known to people in Ohio by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomace that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but it’s safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth—a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,” and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman’s story. It’s the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. “Exotics,” we’re apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat.

As an emblem of the marriage between people and plants, the design of Chapman’s peculiar craft strikes me as just right, implying as it does a relation of parity and reciprocal exchange between its two passengers. More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plants’ point of view—“pomocentrically,” you might say. He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes likened himself to a bumblebee, and why he would rig up his boat the way he did. Instead of towing his shipment of seeds behind him, Chapman lashed the two hulls together so they would travel down the river side by side.

We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species. Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated. It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.

The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America. Like generations of other immigrants before and after, the apple has made itself at home here. In fact, the apple did such a convincing job of this that most of us wrongly assume the plant is a native. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew a thing or two about natural history, called it “the American fruit.”) Yet there is a sense—a biological, not just metaphorical sense—in which this is, or has become, true, for the apple transformed itself when it came to America. Bringing boatloads of seed onto the frontier, Johnny Appleseed had a lot to do with that process, but so did the apple itself. No mere passenger or dependent, the apple is the hero of its own story.

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 103 reviews.
songcatchers More than 1 year ago
The Botany of Desire is a fantastic book about the co-evolution between us and the plant world. The book is written in four chapters, each chapter being an example of a plant and it's relationship with us. Pollan writes about the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. He starts with the apple and writes about John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed) and his love of "wildness". He planted apples not in the rows we see now at apple orchards. He appreciated the more disorderly nature of wilderness. Pollan talks about the tulip and the desire for beauty in chapter two. Chapter three is marijuana and the almost universal desire for intoxication....not only of humans but animals as well. By the end of the book Pollan writes about the potato. We see the opposite end of the spectrum from Chapman's "wildness". We see men in lab coats genetically modifying the potato, taking control of it's genes and having their way with them. Pollan's writing is very passionate. His anecdotes along the way (especially his attempt at growing marijuana) are laughable. His love of gardening is saturated in these pages and by the end I was thinking seriously about starting my own garden!
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Botany of Desire' is a tour de force. I understand this book as a carefully crafted warning about the dangers of setting genetically engineered plants loose in the world ecosystem. The author uses the first three chapters to discuss the co-evolution with humans of the apple, the tulip and cannibis. These fascinating stories serve to educate the reader to botany and ecology and bring him or her up to speed for the final chapter that discusses the genetically engineered potato and the adverse or even disasterous effects it may have on the ecosystem. He summarizes the many unanswered scientific questions that have been raised about this technology and demonstrates that many important questions aren't even being asked. Throughout, the author beautifully describes the mating of plant culture with human culture, the never-ending dance of Dionysus with Apollo. This is great literature.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I was given this book as a gift I thought Pollan's entire concept sounded bizarre. However, once I began reading, I couldn't put it down. His writing style is superb and his ideas are fascinating and haunting. I highly recommend this book to everyone. You'll never think about nature the same way again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Now I know why I spend so much time in my garden... my plants (it is ¿my human¿ to them) are manipulating me to help propagate them through their appeals to my sense of beauty, sweetness, or heaven forbid some ~other~ characteristics that you will read about in this book. All speculation aside, this book was a joy to read (even though it was also ~very educational~). Plant lovers, read this book and I bet you'll love it as much as I do!
Guest More than 1 year ago
'What existential difference is there between the human being's role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebees?' 'Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? With profound questions like these, Michael Pollan pollinates your mind with a new world view of our relationships with plants, one in which humans are not at the center. The book focuses on four primary examples of how plants provide benefits to humans that lead humans to benefit the plants (apples for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication, and the potato for control over nature's food supply). You will learn many new facts in the process that will fascinate you. The book's main value is that you will learn that we need to be more thoughtful in how we assist in the evolution of plant species. The book builds on Darwin's original observations about how artificial evolution occurs (evolution directed by human efforts). So-called domesticated species thrive while the wild ones we admire often do not. Compare dogs to wolves as an example. Mr. Pollan challenges the mental separation we make between wild and domesticated species successfully in the book. The apple section was my favorite. You will learn that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) was a rather odd fellow who was actually in the business of raising and selling apple trees. He planted a few seeds at the homes where he stayed overnight on his travels. Mr. Chapman had apple tree nurseries all over Ohio and Indiana, which he started 2-3 years before he expected an influx of settlers. Homesteading laws required these settlers to plant 50 apple or pears trees in order to take title to the land. And these apples were for making hard apple cider, not eating apples. He was the 'American Dionysus' in Mr. Pollan's view. Apple trees need to be grafted to make good eating apples. Chapman's trees produced many genetic variations, which are good for the species. Apple trees became more narrow in their genes after other sources for alcohol and sweetness became available (from cane sugar). Now, the ancient genes of apple trees are being kept in living form from Kazakhstan, before they are lost due to economic development. Tulips were the source of the famous Tulipmania in Holland. Rare colors occurred due to viruses. Those became extremely valuable during the tulip boom market in the 17th century. Now, growers try to keep the viruses out and we have much more dull, consistent species. We have probably lost much beauty in favor of order in the process. The intoxicants in marijuana are probably caused by toxins that the plants make to kill off insects. Because the plant is a weed, it grows very rapidly. There is a hilarious story about the author's experiences in growing two plants that you will love. As the antidrug war progressed, marijuana became a hothouse plant and was bred and developed to grow much more rapidly under humid, high-light conditions indoors. You will read about modern commercial farms in Holland. The potato story is the most complex. The Irish potato famine related to monoculture. The Incas had always planted a variety of potatoes to avoid the risk of disease. Now, biotechnology has added an insecticide to the leaves of potato plants, taking monoculture one step further. Interestingly, the insects are already becoming resistant to the insecticide. Are we building a new risk to famine with this approach? How will genetically altered potatoes affect humans? Is having consistent french fries at fast food places enough of an incentive to take this risk? These are the kinds of questions raised by this chapter. Mr. Pollan has described a 'dance of human and plant desire that left neither the plants nor the people . . . unchanged.' His key point is that we should be sure to include strong biodiversity in our approaches. Nature can create more variation faster than fledgling biotechnology industry can. Time has proven that biodiversity has many advantages
Guest More than 1 year ago
I especially enjoyed this book not only because of his style but also because of his historical perspective. I would love if he did another book that tracked the impact other plants have had. The only reason I take off a star is because I was not in full agreement with his premise. But I still loved the book, nonetheless.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Pollan's, THE BOTANY OF DESIRE,is an exceptionally good read. It can be read by the historian for its history, the botanist as a study of plant life and the ecologist for his warnings. All will be entertained with his prose and lively style. From Pollan's own garden comes his premise: does man choose the plant or did the plant inspire, conspire to get man to plant a particular vegetable, flower within the confines of his garden? Pollan chooses just four plants (or did the plants choose him) the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato for their desirous traits. The apple's sweetness, the tulip's beauty, cannabis's ability to intoxicate and the potato's ability to produce nutritious food and land unsuitable for anything else. Especially enjoyable and successful was the chapter on the apple. Pollan debunks the myth of Johnny 'Appleseed' Chapman. Chapman is portrayed as an entrereneur of exceptional ability, not just an odd philanthropist planting little apple orchards across Ohio. The tulip's beauty and the story of how it affected the entire Dutch economy during the 1630's certainly will give dot-commers of the 21st century plenty to think about. The consumer of the potato will be sent scurrying to the organic produce aisle at your local grocery story after reading of man's tampering of this humble, diverse vegetable. Pollan's discussion of Ireland's dependence upon the potato, which was for a while its nutritional savior, became a catastrophe for Ireland with the arrival of the potato blight in 1846. The reliance upon the potato monoculture or any monoculture should send a strong warning to humans as to the pitfalls of reliance on a single crop. Pollan's humor is evident throughout the book and the marijuana chapter has a couple of humorous incidents that the peace generation will relate to and bring back memories of a time past. As a historian/landscape designer I heartily recommend THE BOTANY OF DESIRE for its entertainment and educational value.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an incredible book. Like the synopsis on the back cover says, when you walk away from this book, you will have a whole new perspective of life in general. I thorougly enjoyed this. This book is for anyone, but it would be most enjoyable for those who enjoy science. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
edwinbcn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 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.
seanpmurray on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
Popup-ch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book explores how humans, through artificial selection, have modified certain plants. Or, seen the other way, how plants have managed to exploit certain human follies in order to propagate their genes.First out is The Apple. Here we get to follow Johnny Appleseed, and Pollan describes how he planted literally millions of apple seeds, even though apples grown from seeds almost invariably end up inedible. (In this case it didn't really matter, as the apples almost exclusively ended up as cider or applejack.) This wild rearrangement of the apple genome did however result in quite a few successful apple varieties that have since been spread all over the world.Next he talks about the Dutch tulip craze. Not as well covered as in Charles Mackays 'Madness of Crowds', but looking more at the Tulip genome.He than talks about Cannabis, and how it has evolved. Specifically when it was driven underground in the US in the 1980's there was huge improvement in yield as well as 'farming' practices. Apparently there are a few American strains that now dominate the world market. He puts forth an interesting idea of psychoactive drugs as mutagens for memes, and shows how all cultures (except eskimos) use them in varying amounts.The last section is about Potato, specifically genetically modified potato, such as Monsanto's 'New Leaf', containing a gene conferring resistance to potato beetle. He goes to visit some professional potato farmers, to see how it works in practice, and in the end comes down quite firmly against industrial agriculture in general. (Although he doesn't suggest any alternative way of feeding the planet...)Intermeshed in the story is a continuous mapping of everything along the axis of 'Apollonian' vs 'Dionysian', i.e. order vs confusion. An interesting idea, but it gets a bit too much...The main message is that monoculture is inherently bad, and that wild propagation provides a necessary genetic diversity, whereas monoculture sets the scene for disasters such as the Irish potato famine.
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating account of how domesticated plants, and by inference all domesticated species, manipulate human desires in order to ensure their own survival. By examining in detail four plants and the corresponding desires they fulfill ¿ apple/sweetness, tulip/beauty, marijuana/intoxication and potato/order ¿ Pollan illustrates the intertwined, symbiotic relationships mankind has with the natural world, despite our increasing efforts to control and distance ourselves from that world. At the sasme time, we learn the fascinating stories of each plant, how over time its relationship with humans intensified. From Johnny Appleseed to tulipomania, underground pot growers to Monsanto chemists perfecting potatoes, this natural history is as engaging and as much of a page turner as any fictional work.
gypsysmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Michael Pollan looks at 4 plants, apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes, in an effort to see how human desires affect plants but also how plant's desires affect humans. Fascinating I thought (although no one else in my book club thought so).
Sovranty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Michael Pollan examines human involvement in the evolution of plants via artificial selection. In the attempt to achieve the most desirable fruit of botany - in a sense perfection - humans have slowly created a garden of disaster. The utopia of beautifully colored flowers, expectantly delicious apples, the perfect high, and disease/predator resistant crops has diminished the ability for sporadic evolution of novelty. While Pollan only highlighted four types of plants, the warnings can easily be extrapolated to the majority of human-involved nature. We must remember that nature is an asset and not an industry.
quantumbutterfly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There is a reason why Michael Pollan has become so celebrated. He's an amazing writer. If you have read Omnivore's Dllemma or In Defense of Food, you'll want to pick up this one to find the "seeds" of those books. Pollan identifies four human desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control, and matches them up with four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. In the apple chapter you get a history lesson in apples and American history, along with learning some of why our apple supply now seems so focused on red delicious. Tulips gives a window into European culture in the 1600s and proves that the current financial crises certainly has quite the precedent. The marijuana chapter explains how the plant has developed into something so potent and why the US government is so gung ho on demonizing this weed. Finally, the potato chapter goes from its roots in South America, to feeding (and starving) Irish people, to genetically engineered potatoes meant to supply our love of long skinny french fries. All four chapters also provide strong evidence of the danger of monocultures, and how quickly it can wipe out money or people.
isetziol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
Stodelay on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I first picked up this book at my uncle Spence's house while Elisa was giving French lessons to his wife and daughters. It's a brilliant book with a really compelling premise. Pollan asks us to imagine that four plants have proven evolutionarily successful because they have adapted themselves to particular emotional or aesthetic tendencies of human beings. He chooses four plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato, and equates each with a basic human emotion. Really great writing, a fusion of smart thinking, sensitivity to metaphor, mythbusting, historical awareness, and scientific acuity. A great, fun read that informs without preaching to or stultifying you as you read.
ChiaraBeth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book; it made me a Michael Pollan fan for life. Through it, he totally convinced me that it is the plants that are curing, tending to, and raising us, rather than the other way around. He gives plants a mind and motivation of their own (mainly that of reproduction) and shatters a couple of misconceptions along the way as well. My personal favorite myth busting? The story of Johnny Appleseed. His true biopic has no place in the shelves of a Disney library...
Edith1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pretty interesting, especially the first part, about the evolution of the apple. The last quarter didn't really hold my interest anymore, but that may be my fault rather than the book's.
MaySuarts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.My first introduction to this writer was on the Daily Show with John Stewart. Michael pollen appeared on the show as a guest promoting his new book In Defense of Food. The book sounded interesting enough that I thought I would see if I could find it in the library collection. I did, and it revolutionized the way I look at, think about, and consume food. Just like in Defense of Food, The Botany of Desire is a revolutionary book. In this case it revolutionized the way I look at the people/plant relationship.The book follows the story of four plants, coupled with the four human desires these plants fulfill. Apples with sweetness, tulips with beauty, cannabis with intoxication, and potatoes with control. Pollan is the only author I know of that can make the story of the potato sound both poetic and powerful. He explained why apples are so important to Americans and why tulips are just as important to the Dutch. In his chapter on cannabis sativa/indica he talks about intoxicants and how they have shaped our collective imagination. This book is an excellent natural history of four human desires I think that everyone should read. It is smoothly written and very enjoyable.
RachelAnne1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I will never look at a potatoe the sam way again...
catalogthis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I fully intended to love this book. I loved the reviews, I loved the introduction, I loved the very idea of "a plant's eye view of the world."And then I read the first chapter, and learned way more than I wanted to about John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), and Apollonian and Dionysian memes.I'm glad I stuck it through to the last chapter, though. I have a new admiration for the potato -- and a desire to plunge my hands into some rich dirt and let the garden have its way with me.
plenilune on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fascinating read about the interactions between humans and four plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. Personally, I most enjoyed the sections about the tulip and the potato, and learned a lot from the section on marijuana on how things have changed in the law even just in my lifetime. Although the history of the apple in America was interesting (I didn't know that it was primarily drunk rather than eaten before prohibition), I felt that it was a bit repetitive; it could've said what it needed to say in about 2/3 as many words. But I am glad I continued through the whole book-- as someone with Irish ancestry, the historical parts of the potato section were especially interesting.
klyons15 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book makes horticultural science seem a little less geeky and a little more mainstream. It is a fun and witty look at the relationship between plants and people, surprising in its conclusion that the plants are the more powerful players in the game of life. The movie of the same name is not quite as convincing, but is more approachable for those who have little interest in science or in reading.
dele2451 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An entertaining and informative mix of human and evolutionary history, ethnobotany, psychology, genetic science, gardening ideas and patent law. Pollan's work is fresh, fun, topical, scary and thought-provoking. A definite recommend for everybody who eats.