36 pages 1 hour read

Michael Pollan

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


Michael Pollan’s 2001 nonfiction book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, asks the reader to stop considering only the human point of view of nature and to take the perspective of the plants themselves. He writes about how humans have affected the evolution of plants and in turn plants have affected our evolution as well. To Pollan, humans are much like the bumblebee in that we rely on plants as much as they rely on us, and we have gone through the process of co-evolution together. To prove his point, he selects four plants that have embodied important desires to humans and tells the story of our co-evolution with these plants.

The first chapter is about the apple, which has long appealed to the human desire for sweetness. Pollan traces the travels of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, and seeks to separate truth from myth. He finds that Chapman’s trees were important sources of seeds, which were used not to grow fruit for consumption but for making cider. Chapman was a kind of spirit of the woods, a frontiersman who was at home with the Indians and who united the wild and the domestic. He brought the apple tree to the frontier, where it became domesticated. Later, when temperance advocates turned against cider, the apple was touted for its nutritional value, and the varieties were trimmed down to those that could vie with junk food for their sweetness.

The second chapter is about the tulip, a flower considered so beautiful that it sparked a craze called "tulipomania" in early 17th century Holland. He tries to figure out what made the tulip so beautiful to the Dutch, and he focuses on the tulip’s symmetry, which is occasionally broken by a splash of color that is the result of a damaging virus. Like monochromatic Holland, the tulip was orderly but offered a sudden, Dionysian splash of color. Like the apple, the tulip has gone through a reduction in its varieties since breeders have tried to weed out the virus.

In the third chapter, the author traces the story of marijuana, which embodies the human desire for intoxication. Pollan traces the way in which capitalist societies and western religions have looked askance at cannabis, as the plant allows us look at the world around us for inspiration and transcendence, while capitalism and the church ask us to delay transcendence to a future time. He also reinforces the connection between humans and nature, as cannabis contains molecules that are also located in the cannabinoids in our brain.

In the final chapter, Pollan looks at the potato as the embodiment of our desire for control over nature. Much as the Irish turned to the potato to gain control over their lives when the British controlled most of their arable land, Pollan and farmers plant genetically engineered NewLeaf potatoes that are resistant to pests. However, nature, he reminds us, can always surprise us, like the fungus that destroyed the Irish potato crop. In the end, we don’t control nature as much as co-exist in an ever-evolving dance with it.