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

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

by Michael Pollan


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

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

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?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375760396
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/2002
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 50,666
Product dimensions: 5.16(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.66(d)
Lexile: 1350L (what's this?)

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Human Bumblebeexiii
Chapter 1Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple1
Chapter 2Desire: Beauty / Plant: The Tulip59
Chapter 3Desire: Intoxication / Plant: Marijuana111
Chapter 4Desire: Control / Plant: The Potato181

What People are Saying About This

Edward Hoagland

Like Tracy Kidder, Michael Pollan is a writer to immerse in. He's informed and amusing, with a natural sort of voice that spools on inventively beyond expectations into a controlled but productive and intriguing obsessiveness (whether on Johnny Appleseed or marijuana). A fine book.
— (Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points)

Betty Fussell

Anyone who has ever made personal contact with an apple, spud, tulip, or marijuana bud should read this book and be astonished at the eternal tango of men and plants, choreographed with wit, daring, and humanity by this botanist of desire who knows equally the power of plants and of words.
— (Betty Fussell, author of My Kitchen Wars)

Daniel J. Hinkley

Not since Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch have I been held so spellbound by a book. Using only four plants, The Botany of Desire succeeds in illuminating the radiant force of evolution. Remarkable.
— (Daniel J. Hinkley, author of The Explorer's Garden)

Mark Kurlansky

It is a rare pleasure to read a book of ideas so graceful and witty that it makes you smile - at times even laugh out loud - with delight as it challenges you to rethink important issues.
— (Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World)

Penelope Hobhouse

A fascinating and disturbing account of man's strange relationship with plants and plant science. Michael Pollan inspires one to rethink basic attitudes. Beautifully written, it is as compelling as a detective thriller.
— (Penelope Hobhouse, author of On Gardening)


An Exclusive Interview with Michael Pollan

Barnes & 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& 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& 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& 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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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 74 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What an engaging book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Absolutely wonderful insight on the genetic desires of plants
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
actually a boatload of good common sense information on plants . keeps you interested, in these days of struggle always good to know how to grow your own food even in the worst of conditions.I highly recommend this book for the beginner or a seasoned plant lover.
jazzergirl More than 1 year ago
This is such an interesting premise so I am looking forward to settling down with it soon.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MichaelLaRonn More than 1 year ago
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 More than 1 year ago
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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I'm a big fan... especially of Omnivore's Dillema! The Botany of Desire certainly doesn't dissappoint!
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
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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