Book Review – The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.

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In Michael Pollen’s book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, we get several stories of different plants which of course, are all tied together by human desire for each of the plants described in the book. I had read Pollen’s debut book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when it first came out, so I may end up referencing it here.
This books begins with the humble Apple, and takes us to the actual person who Johnny Appleseed was, and what he did with his life concerning the fruit. First, I was not aware that this guy was even real, much less a well known man in early American History. In a broad stroke, he found a pattern in his life that benefited him financially, and in terms of life satisfaction, so he kept repeating it, leaving the safety and comfort of built up areas of population for the frontier where he followed waterways, and planted groves of Apples in areas he concluded would likely become good places for people to settle as they moved west.
As it turns out, his idea was built on solid ground. As families moved west to establish their own communities and farms, the ended up purchasing the young saplings in order to meet two very needed requirements, one of legal use, which was that land use law required various tasks for someone to establish a claim on new land, one of which was the planting of Apple or Pear trees. The other requirement which Apples fulfilled was the need for cider, one of early America’s staple beverages. In addition to the assurance cider provided as untainted compared to water sources, tea leaves, wheat, coffee, grapes, these did not grow in mass quantities along the East coast at the time. Apples would grow, hence the sugar producing fruit could be distilled.
Although not coming after the Apple section, the Potato is also included in this book. We are taken to the Potato’s homeland, its travels to Europe, and eventually its modern home in Idaho. The section on Potatoes most fits the early works of Pollen, critiquing the modern monoculture of food compared to the natural system these plants inhabit. It was specifically the monoculture of one specific Potato that allowed the Potato famine in Ireland. Allowing the plant to grow with multiple varieties would have minimized this entire calamity.
Fast forward, and we find ourselves following the author to three very distinct ends of modern Potato growing, with a stop at Monsanto’s Potato operations, and two Potato farmers in Idaho, one growing a single species of the Potato desired by consumers and most notably the fast food industry, as well as growing them conventionally. The other an Organic farmer, also growing among other things, Potatoes. The question as usually for this topic is how to feed the world’s population. The conventional farming has quantity on its side, the Organic farming has quality. The pressures on both are high, and everyone is set in their views on what the problems and solutions are.
Most disappointing, was the work done on the next plant up, Cannabis. This is only because I have never used cannabis, never desired to, am not interested in using it, and from experience of watching others who did, can not conclude that smoking it for recreational use is anything other than just that, a recreational activity. The work Pollen does on the subject is solid, and makes its arguments in a clear, and smart fashion, as with much of his work. The plant itself has a reason for the effects of consuming the chemicals within it that cause its consciousness altering. The argument that its great for making paper, rope, or textiles is not made with any reasonable bolstering, and in fact, those above products are made in greater quantity and quality, as well as economic benefit with other plants then cannabis could ever hope to accomplish.
I feel its foolish to continue to review this material any deeper, as my personal biases will not allow even a modest attempt at impartiality.
I saved what is the second plant in the book, but my favorite part, the Tulip. Until I read this part, the Tulip was only a plant by name to me. It does not grow wild where I live, nor do I see it in home gardens when I visit people’s homes here. The Tulip requires something the Southern California regions is famous for not having, which is cold weather. Apparently, the bulbs from which a Tulip grow need a certain temperature to allow the plant to do what it does during winter months in order to grown in the spring. When looking at the history of the plant, and its flower, coming from the Nordic region of Europe, it become easy to see why it had a craze for it, and why I very much would love to have some growing here.
In the historic context, color wasn’t something you could simply go out and purchase. It was pigments from the world around you. In fact, in historical documents, the mention or lack of mentioning a specific color often helps date the material or narrow’s the location of where it came from. This was the foundation for the Tulip craze, and the adoption of the upper classes cemented the market, the celebrity endorsement of its day.
Of course, I knew Tulips came in a variety of colors, but the discussion to two specific species has me salivating to acquire them, or have them sent to people. The first up is the Semper Augustus. Pictured below, how fantastic is that?

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The second, and ironically fantastic is the Queen of the Night.

 

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This is a decent book, well written, and vivid in its descriptions. As with most of Pollen’s work, he cares very much about the subject he writes on, and more than anything, poses questions he tries to answer.

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