We humans are a curious lot. We like to see ourselves above nature—higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. We often fool ourselves, believing we are in control of the natural world that surrounds our homes, schools and businesses. Well, at least until the next tornado, earthquake, flood, famine or disease comes along.
Even people who know full well how interconnected we are to the natural world can experience eureka moments of understanding. It happened to journalist and food author Michael Pollan one day while he was watching a bee move from flower to flower. He marveled that the bee really had no understanding of its role in the plant’s reproductive cycle.
And then Pollan was struck by the fact that he was in the middle of planting potatoes in his garden. Potatoes! He was servicing a tuberous root that was domesticated thousands of years ago by the Incas in South America. Human beings have spent centuries helping the potato spread across the planet. That’s when Pollan’s 2001 book, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World was conceived.
Pollan looks at four plants in Botany of Desire, and explains how a particular attraction humans have for each of the plants has led us to move heaven and earth to cultivate them across the world. Because of our desires, we have made them four of the most successful plants in history.
Our pursuit of sweetness has made the Apple the most popular fruit on earth. Our love of beauty has made the Tulip a star. Our desire to get high has made Cannibis one of the most modified plants in the world. Finally, our history with the Potato is a compelling reflection of our desire for control in a chaotic world.
Pollan’s book is filled with histories and stories that will make you look at our relationship with these plants in a whole new way. You’ll see Johnny Appleseed in a completely different light. If you think the Housing Bubble is bad, wait until you read about the Tulip Bubble. You’ll see how we’ve changed Cannibis from a tall, ugly weed into a compact beauty that can be grown indoors (so as not to alert the authorities). And you’ll discover the dangers of monocultures (think Irish Potato Famine) as you follow the potato from its Inca origins to the french fries you buy at McDonald’s. (We’ve even grown potatoes in space!)
PBS was so impressed with Pollan’s groundbreaking 2001 book that it commissioned a documentary based on it. You can explore for yourself online, but don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the printed version. After all, the book is always better.