Book Review: “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan

All these time I thought I was the center of the universe for those plants in my garden, when in fact I was being manipulated by them to propagate their genes, no different than the bees or insects which pollinate them. Michael Pollan in this book provides the perspectives from the plants’ perspective. The author offers very good impelling stories for 4 specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana (cannabis) and potato. In apples, we sought out sweetness and in tulips we saw beauty, and marijuana we crave for intoxication, and in potato we chose to control.

The DVD version like the book version is quite enjoyable. Seeing the pictures is worth a thousand words in the book. The audiobook makes my commute a breeze.

A quick summary here:

1. Apples: Sweetness
In pursuit of sweetness (hard to come by in the early days), people planted apples to make hard cider (fermented into alcohol) as a “safe” drink instead of then contaminated water. The story of Johnny Appleseed (Chapman) and how this “bum” planted and sold apple trees grown from seeds in the 19th century was interesting. Also the evolution of Apples from its origin in Kazakhstan sounded like a heroic journey. As a lover of apples, I found the Apple story intriguing. So many varieties of Apples (mostly not sweet) were found in its origin and yet we mostly consume a small subset of the Apple species like my favorites: Fuji and Golden Delicious. The lack of genetic diversity was due to the fact that modern apples are mostly grafted because apples don’t grow true from seeds (What’s wrong with Johnny Appleseed?).

2. Tulips: Beauty
I found it hard to believe that until the recent century, flowers were not appreciated, considered pointless. This is probably limited to Western culture. The author went into great details of the Tulips Maniac in Holland in 1635. Interesting tidbits: the highest priced, exotic tulip during the Tulip Maniac was infected with virus such that it gave out a strange color pattern. Another one: 200 million years ago, there were no flowers. The advent of flower creates an interest for the pollinators, which upon being gratified, will do the leg work for the plants. How convenient is the evolution.

3. Marijuana (Cannabis): Intoxication. I got to learn about the ambivalence of law in dealing with legality of using marijuana, especially in Holland. I also learned about the differences between Indica and Sativa – how the two species produces different properties of physchoativity, in human’s quest to grow marijuana indoors due to the unfavorable law. And the author’s encounter with the local police chief while growing a marijuana plant in the back was hilarious. And the political/legal pendulum of using marijuana added some spice to the evolution of this plant in our society. In most of the human history, psychoactive drug/plants (THC in marijuana) play an important role especially in arts, music, literature and even religion, as we often hear about celebrities’ abuse of drug and overdose. I found it fascination that what marijuana does chemically is to allow us to forget, especially the painful experience. I guess it’s a form of numbing that makes us less stressed, hence happier.

4. Potato: Control
In this section, the author touches on genetic engineering like the GMO (trade name: New Leaf) slips of Russet Potato that’s capable of producing a natural BT that kill the potato beetle. Historically, the rise of potato due to its ease of planting brought prosperity to Ireland in 18th century. Then the famine as a result of one fungi that kill off the entire mono-culture potato crop within a week was rather dramatic underling author’s point – the danger of mono-culture for all crops. Since McDonald’s uses only the Russet potatoes to make their famous French Fries, the risk of growing this type of potato are high for pest invasion and their pesticide resistance. We can all learn from the original South Americans who domesticated potatoes planted multiple kinds of potatoes – biodiversity – for disease and pest control.