The Botany of Desire: a Plant’s Eye View of the World

Michael Pollan, Random House Publishing


The premise of Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, is remarkably simple — plants and people have co-evolved, often to the benefit of both. Or, as Pollan writes, we have “ventured into the garden for the purpose of marrying powerful human drives to the equally powerful drives of plants.”

To illustrate, Pollan explores four plants and the human desires they fulfill: apples=sweetness; tulips=beauty; marijuana=intoxication; potato=control. In the process, he explores the state of agriculture past and present, the contradictory human impulses for Apollonian and Dionysian orders, and some rather frightening trends in the garden and on the farm.

It should be noted — Pollan is a New Yorker-esque writer (the chapter on potatoes was originally published in the New Yorker). He writes quick-paced, witty, urbane prose, prose that entertains, but also tends to veer far off the track. Where this otherwise excellent book falls short are those passages where Pollan explores ideas only thinly connected to his original thesis and that are lite on science.

But do not be discouraged. Though TBOD isn’t heavy on the technical, Pollan’s grasp of the science involved is more than sufficient and his ability to explain that science is strong. The chapters on apples and potatoes, the best two in the book, succinctly distill such complex scientific issues as the need for genetic diversity and wildness, monoculture and the human desire for it, and the intricate differences, both psychological and practical, between industrial and organic farming. These chapters also strike the right balance between the personal and political, the cultural, the scientific, and the historic.

The highlights of TBOD were the interesting historical tidbits, such as this one on the origin of the witch’s broomstick:

Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells”…Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms, and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oilbased “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.

Or this one, which reminds us that political savvy isn’t new to politicians and leaders:

Eventually the potato’s undeniable advantages over grain would convert all of northern Europe, but outside Ireland the process was never anything less than a struggle. In Germany, Frederick the Great had to force peasants to plant potatoes; so did Catherine the Great in Russia. Louis XVI took a subtler tack, reasoning that if he could just lend the humble spud a measure of royal prestige, peasants would experiment with it and discover its virtues. So Marie Antoinette took to wearing potato flowers in her hair, and Louis hatched an ingenious promotional scheme. He ordered a field of potatoes planted on the royal grounds and then posted his most elite guard to protect the crop during the day. He sent the guards home at midnight, however, and in due course the local peasants, suddenly convinced of the crop’s value, made off in the night with the royal tubers.

The chapters on tulips and marijuana fell far short of the perfect balance struck in the first and last chapters. Pollan’s description of tulipomania, a frenzy which gripped Holland in the 1600’s, is interesting, but doesn’t quite capture the moment as well as other accounts.

And so much has already been written about marijuana and the U.S. drug war that presenting a new perspective on this plant is nearly impossible. Sadly, rather than focus his discussion on the often ingenious techniques present day pot farmers use to manipulate the plant for their own desires, Pollan instead chooses to spend more time investigating psychological states created by the plant. Stoned writing is stoned writing, whether it is highly intellectual or just plain high.

But these are relatively minor complaints. If for no other reason, you should read this book for the first and fourth chapters. They are so well written, and the information they relay so important, that they will cause you to pause and consider your own place in the food chain and how your desires have helped create many plants as we know them today.