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

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An Idaho farmer cultivates Russet Burbank potatoes so that a customer at a McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the fall and, come spring, has a riotous patch of color to admire. Two straightforward examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these ...
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Overview

An Idaho farmer cultivates Russet Burbank potatoes so that a customer at a McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the fall and, come spring, has a riotous patch of color to admire. Two straightforward examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them?

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. What Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates in The Botany of Desire is that people and domesticated plant species have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship, a relationship that is just as common and essential to the way nature works.

In this utterly original narrative that blends history, memoir, and the best science writing, Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species -- the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato -- from the point of view of the plants. All four species are deeply woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and Pollan illustrates how each has evolved a survival strategy based on satisfying one of humankind's most basic desires. The apple gratifies our taste for sweetness; the tulip attracts us with its beauty; marijuana offers intoxication; and the genetically modified potato gives us a sense of control over nature. And just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand coevolutionary scheme that Pollan so brilliantly evokes, have done remarkably well by us.

Take the apple, for example. In nineteenth-century America, frontier dwellers far from the trading posts of the East lacked a source of sweetness in their diet -- and sugar with which to make alcohol. So when a man named John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) floated down the Ohio River with bushels of apple seeds in his canoe, the settlers seized on the opportunity to grow the fruit on their new land. The pioneers' desire for sweetness was satisfied -- and the apple was given a whole new continent on which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdote and accessible science in gorgeous prose, Pollan takes the reader on an absorbing journey through the landscape of botany and desire. It is a journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Plants are no strangers to desire. They learned long ago to play on the desires of other species to fulfill their greatest longing -- propagating themselves. So naturally, humans find themselves turned on by certain plants, and with domestication they have learned to enhance the very qualities that drew them to a particular plant in the first place. Science writer and gardener Michael Pollan tells of four plants and their associated desires -- apples for sweetness; tulips for beauty; marijuana for intoxication; and potatoes for control -- in this very personal and wonderfully written book.
Burkhard Bilger
[Pollan] 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 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. His first book described his education as a gardener, and that hands-and-knees experience animates every one of his descriptions -- whether of hydroponic marijuana (''I don't think I've ever seen plants that looked more enthusiastic'') or of roses (''flung open and ravishing in Elizabethan times, obligingly buttoned . . . up and turned prim for the Victorians.'').
New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times
A whimsical, literary romp through man's perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.
Entertainment Weekly
We can give no higher praise to the work of this superb science writer/ reporter than to say that his new book is as exciting as any you'll read.
New York Times Book Review
[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him to root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places.... Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.
New York Times
Pollan shines a light on our own nature as well as on our implication in the natural world.
New Yorker
A wry, informed pastoral.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan's fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature. Using the histories of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis to illustrate the complex, reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world, he shows how these species have successfully exploited human desires to flourish. "It makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees," Pollan writes as he seamlessly weaves little-known facts, historical events and even a few amusing personal anecdotes to tell each species' story. For instance, he describes how the apple's sweetness and the appeal of hard cider enticed settlers to plant orchards throughout the American colonies, vastly expanding the plant's range. He evokes the tulip craze of 17th-century Amsterdam, where the flower's beauty led to a frenzy of speculative trading, and explores the intoxicating appeal of marijuana by talking to scientists, perusing literature and even visiting a modern marijuana garden in Amsterdam. Finally, he considers how the potato plant demonstrates man's age-old desire to control nature, leading to modern agribusiness's experiments with biotechnology. Pollan's clear, elegant style enlivens even his most scientific material, and his wide-ranging references and charming manner do much to support his basic contention that man and nature are and will always be "in this boat together." (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Plants are important to us for many reasons. Pollan, an editor and contributor to Harper's and the New York Times Magazine and author of Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, muses on our complex relationships with them, using the examples of the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato. He weaves disparate threads from personal, scientific, literary, historical, and philosophical sources into an intriguing and somehow coherent narrative. Thus, he portrays Johnny Appleseed as an important force in adapting apple trees to a foreign climate but also a Dionysian figure purveying alcohol to settlers; tulips as ideals of beauty that brought about disaster to a Turkish sultan and Dutch investors; marijuana as a much desired drug related to a natural brain chemical that helps us forget as well as a bonanza for scientific cultivators; and the potato, a crop once vilified as un-Christian, as the cause of the Irish famine and finally an example of the dangers of modern chemical-intense, genetically modified agriculture. These essays will appeal to those with a wide range of interests. Recommended for all types of libraries. [For more on the tulip, see Anna Pavord's The Tulip (LJ 3/1/99) and Mike Dash's Tuplipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused (LJ 3/1/00). Ed.] Marit S. Taylor, Auraria Lib., Denver Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Pollan shines a light on our own nature as well as on our implication in the natural world.”
—The New York Times

“[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him to root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places.... Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“A wry, informed pastoral.”
—The New Yorker

“We can give no higher praise to the work of this superb science writer/ reporter than to say that his new book is as exciting as any you’ll read.”
—Entertainment Weekly

“A whimsical, literary romp through man’s perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.”
—Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375501296
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/8/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine as well as a contributing editor at Harper's magazine. He is the author of two prizewinning books: Second Nature: A Gardener's Education and A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. Pollan lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

Biography

Few writers have done more to revitalize our national conversation about food and eating than Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose witty, offbeat nonfiction shines an illuminating spotlight on various aspects of agriculture, the food chain, and man's place in the natural world.

Pollan's first book, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991), was selected by the American Horticultural Society as one of the 75 best books ever written about gardening. But it was Botany of Desire, published a full decade later, that put him on the map. A fascinating look at the interconnected evolution of plants and people, Botany was one of the surprise bestsellers of 2001. Five years later, Pollan produced The Omnivore's Dilemma, a delightful, compulsively readable "ecology of eating" that was named one the ten best books of the year by The New York Times and Washington Post.

A professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Pollan is a former executive editor for Harper's and a contributing writer for The New York Times, where he continues to examine the fascinating intersections between science and culture.

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    1. Hometown:
      San Francisco Bay Area, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 6, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Long Island, New York
    1. Education:
      Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University
    2. Website:

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 holeinto 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.




Copyright 2001 by Michael Pollan
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Human Bumblebee

Ch. 1 Desire: Sweetness/Plant: The Apple 1

Ch. 2 Desire: Beauty/Plant: The Tulip 59

Ch. 3 Desire: Intoxication/Plant: Marijuana 111

Ch. 4 Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato 181

Epilogue 239

Sources 247

Index 257

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Interviews & Essays

An Exclusive Interview with Michael Pollan

Barnes & Noble.com: I love the title of your book, especially since it refers both to human desires -- in your examples, sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control -- and also to the plant's desire to reproduce itself. As you point out, being domesticated has turned out to be the hands-down (or roots-down!) best way to maximize one's reproductive potential. What kinds of reactions have you gotten from people on this different way of looking at domestication?

Michael Pollan: You know, these days we feel so guilty about our power over nature that I think people find it heartening to learn that nature also exerts power over us in ways we scarcely notice. It's humbling but also exhilarating to realize we have a lot more in common with the bees than we realize. The bee thinks he's getting the better of the deal when he takes nectar from the flower, but in fact it's the flower that has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its genes from place to place. Our relationship with domesticated species -- plants as well as animals -- is no different, really. The evolutionary strategy of these species is to gratify our desires, in exchange for which we help them multiply and spread across the world. So who's really domesticating whom? What I find so encouraging about this slightly upside-down perspective is that it puts us back into the web of nature, as one species both acting on and being acted upon by other species -- which is of course what we are and will always be. We're less different from the rest of nature than we like to think.

B&N.com: Although not widely known, one of the hottest issues in biodiversity is the loss of domestic breeds that represent the genetic diversity of so many of our most important sources of food and other uses. You touch upon this issue several times throughout the book. Can you describe the importance of heirloom plants, seed banks, and so on?

MP: Yes, we're accustomed to thinking of biodiversity strictly in terms of wild nature -- places like the Amazon, where species loss is a serious problem. But of course the biodiversity of the domesticated species we depend on -- for our food, fiber, drugs, etc. -- is every bit as important. Every time we lose another variety of corn or cattle, an irreplaceable set of genes -- which is to say, a set of qualities of pest resistance, taste, color, anything you can think of -- vanishes from the earth. And we may need those genes in the future. The great famine in Ireland was a biodiversity problem: The Irish depended almost entirely on a single variety of potato -- the Lumper -- that happened to be vulnerable to a devastating fungus. When the fungus arrived in 1845, the entire potato crop was lost, and a million Irish starved to death. After the blight, botanists went looking for a potato that could resist the fungus, and they found it in the Andes, where Indians continue to cultivate thousands of different potato varieties. This vast genetic archive happened to contain the gene for blight resistance. The problem today is that the gene pool for all our crops and domestic animals is shrinking, and if we don't preserve this precious stock of biodiversity, we leave ourselves vulnerable to disasters. This is one reason it's so important for gardeners to grow heirloom plants -- it's a concrete way everyone can do something about biodiversity, a problem that often seems remote and impossible to solve. Seed banks are important, but the gardener also has a key role to play in keeping old species going year after year after year.

B&N.com: Back to the human desires embodied in these plants, I found it interesting that even though each one -- the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato -- had one main desire, often the other desires were present to some degree. For example, the apple is sweet, but you discovered that Johnny Appleseed was supplying intoxication to the early settlers in the form of hard cider. Also, modern growers of cannabis use high-tech control to produce a "high."

MP: In the book I talk about four plants (apples, tulip, cannabis, and potato) and four corresponding desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control), but of course the same plant can gratify more than one desire. Cannabis, for example, is also an important fiber, which is why in colonial America every farmer was required by law to grow it for the war effort: Hemp rope was indispensable. The opium poppy answers the desire for beauty, for intoxication, for spice, and for pain relief -- all in one flower! So the relationship of plants to human desire has many dimensions. I would argue, too, that there are desires we scarcely knew we had until we discovered the plants that could stimulate and gratify them. I'm convinced the architecture of flowers is not only an example of beauty but in all sorts of way actually shaped our conception of what beauty is.

B&N.com: Being a gardener yourself, this book is in many ways a personal story. Do you think gardening changes the how people experience the world around them?

MP: I've found that if you approach the garden in a spirit of openness and inquiry you will find in it a whole world of meaning. I'm convinced, in fact, that there is more to be learned in the garden about our place in the natural world -- as well as about our nature as human beings -- than just about any other realm you can think of. Americans have traditionally looked to the wilderness when they've wanted to understand how they fit into nature -- think of Thoreau at Walden Pond -- but I believe the garden is an even better teacher. For one thing, in the garden you see how people can learn to use nature without abusing nature. For another, you see in the garden that our relationship to other species need not be a zero-sum game: In our relationship with the potato, to take a very prosaic example, we have gained immensely (the potato made possible the Industrial Revolution in Europe) -- and at the same time so has the potato, which without us would never have gotten out of the Andes.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 69 )
Rating Distribution

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(34)

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(17)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 69 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    fantastic!

    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!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2001

    Superbly Written.

    '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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2002

    An Incredible Book

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2001

    Enlightening

    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!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2003

    a good read

    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.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2010

    Love this book!

    I was fascinated by the topics in this book. I am going to use it in a critical thinking class I teach. Something new and fresh as well as different.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2007

    Not what the title implies

    The author brings up a very interesting concept, but relies solely on history to back his points up rather than incorporating scientific data. This would be fine if the title implied that it was a historical account, but botany is a science. He is also very redundant in his historical accounts, reitterating the same points with slightly different examples. This would be a much easier and interesting read if the points weren't so drawn out.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2001

    I do not have time to talk, but.........

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2001

    The interelationship of plants and man...

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2001

    Plants and Humans Influence Each Other for Mutual Benefit!

    '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

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  • Posted July 29, 2014

    I've been a fan of Michael Pollan since I read the Omnivore's Di

    I've been a fan of Michael Pollan since I read the Omnivore's Dilemma in college. He doesn't disappoint here. His exploration into the history of the apple, tulip, potato, and cannabis is fascinating and well-written. Of all the chapters, the apple and the potato were my favorite. The thought of a potato that creates its own pesticides is incredible AND incredibly scary.  It is a bit meandering at times, and as one of his earlier books, it's not as riveting as his later works. But it's still very good. 

    I should add that I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Scott Brick while reading. The narration was excellent and really added to the experience. If your reading time is limited, I would recommend it. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2014

    Very Intriguing!

    I work at a coffee shop and had a customer give this book to me one day. From that moment this has become one of my top favorite books. Micheal Pollan is an amazing author with very inspiring view points on food and health topics. I would highly recomend this to anyone!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2013

    I love Michael Pollan!

    I'm a big fan... especially of Omnivore's Dillema! The Botany of Desire certainly doesn't dissappoint!

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  • Posted March 13, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Comfortable, fascinating, informative and curious: The co-evolut

    Comfortable, fascinating, informative and curious:
    The co-evolution of plants and mankind seems designed to be viewed from the perspective of the seven deadly sins, but Michael Pollan takes a nicely squared-off look at the topic through just four plants. Sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana) and control (the potato) form the human basis of this tale of mutable and mutating flora and fauna. Combining familiar stories (including Johnny Appleseed), history (including the Irish potato famine),botany, genetics and more in a pleasingly readable text, the author successfully challenges social assumptions (insect-free harvesting is good for example) without digressing into radical condemnation. A very human curiosity invites the reader to ponder and wonder delightfully, while enjoying a text rich with fascinating digressions and just deep enough to impart the odd lesson in science, myth and history.
    Yes, I know that plants don’t “care,” and the author knows it too. But the image of plants manipulating us, rather than us enjoying the imagined power of manipulating ourselves, is certainly one that awakens the mind and inspires the reader to stop and think a bit. Next time I see a field of potatoes I might ponder on how we harvest sheep as well, and wonder if they too might be vulnerable to the great unknown that can suddenly wipe out a monocultured crop.
    I’d like to see the TV series, but I’m reviewing this from the point of view of someone who hasn’t. I enjoyed the smooth writing, the self-deprecating tone, and the gentle lessons imparted. I’m still not an expert, but I am at least a slightly more interested and educated amateur in this fascinating world of co-evolution.
    Disclosure: Our book group chose to read this book and I enjoyed it. I’m hoping I might enjoy the discussion too.

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  • Posted July 30, 2011

    Great following to"Omnivors Dilemna"! While you might become distracted by the many focuses discussed.

    Tulips looked at in a amazing light for us.

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  • Posted January 15, 2011

    Cant keep a common theme, too many digressions, but simultaneously informative.

    I liked the factual information in this book BUT this guy digresses too much. If this were an argumentative ( or even informative) essay, he would fail. I wanted facts, history, and argument; however, I got off-topic banter instead.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2011

    In My Top Ten of All Books

    I read this book when it was first published and have remembered parts and used parts of it ever since. Part of mu job is giving presentations to large groups and I find there are "trivia" topics from this book that I can use in almost every one. If you are interested in unusual/uncommon information, this book is for you. The section on apples was especially interesting to me... I just downloaded a copy to the Nook that I got for Christmas so I could reread.

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  • Posted March 7, 2010

    Evolution from a different angle

    When they teach evolution in schools, one of the things they discuss is how humans have had a profound effect on natural selection. What they don't talk about is how some plants have managed to manipulate our behavior in order to advance their own survival. This is evolution from a totally different view point, and one that really makes you think.

    Written in the form of several stories about various plants, this book is an easy but mind provoking read. The author has done some heavy duty research to determine how several plants have been manipulating us over the years. Non-fiction about scientific subjects doesn't get much better than this.

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  • Posted March 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Plants Were Never So Fascinating

    Michael Pollan continues to prove himself (in reverse: at least in so much as I have read his works in reverse order so far.) The Botany of Desire is somewhat different from Pollans more popular and familiar works; The Omnivores Dilema and In Defence of Food. Clearly once can see that natural progression into the aforementioned works after reading this work.
    Pollan take a look at the work from 4 different plants view of the world. The idea is to raise the question of who is in control of who? Do we cultivate the plants for our own desire or to the plants evolve themselves into objects of our desire in order to advance themselves by using us as their pawns? One is surely left for a moment of philosphical pause when done reading this book.
    Along the way we are fed Professor Pollans wonderful gift of prose as he paints pictures of each plant and their affect on the human desires. Its surely no secret that Michael Pollan is a Journalist but an imaginitve and brilliant writer as well.
    First we look at the apple tree and find out that Johnny Appleseed is not merely an American Folklore but also a sort of liquor store owner for puritan settlers. Then Pollan questions Darwinism in a non-theological manner while looking at the Tulip. Pollan dares to go further and answer questions sccientists wont about Cannabis and the human mind. Finally, Pollan round out the book with a look at the Potato and bioengineering and monocultures. The latter part clearly a preamble to where all the authors future works would head.
    Though this book may not nearly be what the popular Pollan fan is used to it still holds up to the authors wonderful sence of story and the ability to tell a story. The ability to tell an scientific and political story in a very intriguing manner and to engage and challenge the reader to become a part of the story when it's over.

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  • Posted January 30, 2010

    Botany of Desire a delicious read

    Pollan's Botany of Desire provides insight into human's desires and plant's satisfaction of those desires. Using sweetness (apple), beauty (tulip), intoxication (marijuana), and control (potato) Michael Pollan discusses how the plants have benefited from us as much as we've benefited from the plants.
    This book is an excellent read for gardeners, students of human nature, and anyone interested in the natural.
    Each of the four chapters has the history of the plant and it's human involvement. Even if the reader isn't a gardener or nominally interested in nature, you will take a whole new look at plants (apples, potatoes, and tulips, certainly) like never before.

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