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

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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?

304 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 8, 2001

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About the author

Michael Pollan

74 books12.7k followers
Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,768 reviews
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,209 followers
June 19, 2016
I love books that open my eyes, teach me something, and even go so far as to re-educate me on the fallacies foisted upon me by ill-informed elementary school teachers. To that last end, I found the chapter on Johnny Appleseed very enlightening as well as highly entertaining.

Michael Pollan is more humorous and, let's just say, more adventurous than one might expect from a journalist/botanist (see his passages on hallucinogenic plants.) I appreciate his willingness to "go first" in the same way I tip my hat to daring bastard who first tried, say, lobster. I assume it went down like this: "What's this? A giant, saltwater, armor-clad cockroach? Definitely looks poisonous....Fuck it, I'm hungry." Trying new, unknown food must have been done on a dare or at least with starvation lurking close at-hand.

Farmers on any scale will enjoy and find use in The Botany of Desire. As a pallid yellow-thumb aspiring to green, I know I learned a few things. For one, I've finally transitioned over to organic apples. I don't know who would eat another kind after reading this book. Why with the chemicals already?! Good lord!
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,050 reviews1,832 followers
March 29, 2016
All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself...

Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?...

All these plants, which I'd always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn't do for themselves.

Pollan posits that plants are clever little buggers who have tricked and enslaved the human race into doing their bidding.

I am not unfamiliar with this thinking. Growing up, my father regularly told me the same thing. Once when walking home from school on a windy day, a large branch fell on me, striking my shoulder and knocking me to the ground. Since my collar bone was not broken, I got up and walked home. When I told my father what happened, he said,

"Of course. The trees are always hoping we'll drop dead. This one was just a bit more aggressive about it."


PAPI: "Trees are always hoping that the humans or animals walking by will drop dead. That way they will have a tasty snack."

I've never forgotten what my father told me. He was halfway serious in these remarks, and I take them halfway seriously, too. Even though I've seen tons of "stupid" or "silly" horror films which dream up scenarios in which "plants are trying to kill us!," there is an undercurrent of truth in the notion that, in a way, plants are very evolved organisms, much more evolved than humans themselves. Who can say what their true intentions are? (I'm only half-joking, here.)

Despite the rather "hokey horror film" premise of Pollan's introduction, the book is a smart yet entertaining look at plants and their history of coevolution and codependence with human beings.

The book is divided into four parts.

1.) APPLES. This is a very interesting portion of the book. A lot of focus is on Johnny Appleseed. We also get some fascinating discussions of religion.

There was an old tradition in northern Europe linking the grape, which flourished all through Latin Christendom, with the corruptions of the Catholic Church, while casting the apple as the wholesome fruit of Protestantism. Wine figured in the Eucharist; also, the Old Testament warned against the temptations of the grape. But the Bible didn't have a bad word to say about the apple or even the strong drink that could be made from it. Even the most God-fearing Puritan could persuade himself that cider had been given a theological free pass.

2.) TULIPS. This section was hella boring. I was bored out of my skull. Ugh. SO BORING.

3.) MARIJUANA. This was a fascinating section about drugs, Pollan's experiences growing and smoking pot, and why plants that alter human consciousness could be a good thing.

We also get gems like this:

[Witches'] potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms, and the skins of toads. These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based "flying ointment" that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the "broomstick" by which these women were said to travel.

Pollan posits that many of our philosophies and our religions come from the influence of drugs. There's a lot of research to back him up, which I won't go into here.

4.) POTATO. This was interesting because Pollan discusses the Potato Famine and also GMO potatoes. He even grows some GMO potatoes himself in his garden as an experiment. Blah blah blah food industry blah blah blah monoculture blah blah blah.

Tl;dr - 3 out of 4 ain't bad. The mindnumbing tulip section stops this from being a 5-star book, but I think this is a better book than the only other Pollan book I've read: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, in which Pollan comes off as a rather entitled and condescending wealthy person. There's not much of that here, Pollan is much more relatable in this book, perhaps because he's not trying to tell people what to eat and how to live their lives.

Wow, Carmen, bitter much?

I call it how I see it! :p

This book has so much information and interesting thinking points that I think it is definitely worth reading for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the topics presented here. I was surprised the book was so good. I'm impressed.
Profile Image for Emily.
11 reviews15 followers
August 28, 2007
Okay, okay, books by Michael Pollan are clearly a fad right now, but I have bought into it whole-heartedly. He is an amazing, amazing writer: he makes me want to plant a garden, to tour his garden (his bedroom? what?), to only eat organic food, and to find out the story and origin of every morsel of food I put in my body. But he does it in a way that isn't overly preachy or agenda-driven. Instead, he lets you get what he is saying while at the same time telling an engaging, well-researched story, both personal and historic, and one that made me want to read quickly to the very end. I took many a too-long lunch break because I was so hooked.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
November 14, 2008
In East Asian cultures – according to my increasingly Japanese daughters – the number four brings bad luck. This is because it sounds a bit like the word for death. Clearly the number four has no such associations for Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is based around four meals and this one is based around four plants. I’ve done more than just enjoy these two books, they have completely enchanted me whilst also informing me and keeping me greatly amused.

Now, desire sounds like a strong word to use about botany. There is, of course, that Frank Zappa song Call Any Vegetable and it will respond to you – I think this is also the song which ends with the memorable line, “O what a pumpkin!”

Now that isn’t quite the desire Pollan is talking about here. His four plants are: the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. As a one time Irishman I have no problem with the idea that the potato might make the list of plants of desire, but I can see that others might struggle most with that one being included.

This book is based on the idea that plants use us as much as we use them – and the plants best able to meet our desires are the plants we help most to spread about the world. So much so that we tend to make monocultures of those plants that best match our desires – something that is arguably as much a problem for the plants as it is a boon for them.

Do you know when you sort of know the story to something, even if you don’t quite know the details? I had that kind of relationship with the story of Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman). While I had some notion of him going around frontier America planting apple seeds (and ten points for promoting dental health) he was never really going to cut it beside, say, Daniel Boone (what a dream come-er-true-er was he!). Little did I know that rather than being a man dedicated to the random distribution of apple seeds, he actually sold apple trees to pioneers (when not considering matrimony with stray 10 year olds). Pioneers were keen to buy the said apple trees not due to the dearth of doctors being kept away by all those apples being eaten, but rather the equally troubling shortage of bartenders. Apples being as good a way as any to make a pleasant alcoholic drink – and one that wasn’t complained about in the Bible.

It is here that Pollan develops one of his major metaphors – borrowed from Nietzsche (that most popular of masturbatory German philosophers) of the dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’ve generally found this to be one of the more lucid and intelligent things Nietzsche ever said and so wasn’t disappointed that so much time was devoted to this idea in this book. Basically, Apollo was the god of order and light, Dionysus the god of wine and orgies. Our obsession with growing the same potato all over the world to make the perfect McDonalds fry is symbolic of the Apollonian desire – Johnny Appleseed growing apple trees from seed and thereby getting a vast number of genetically different trees symbolic of the Dionysian.

This central tension forms a large part of the basis of the book. It proves an interesting thing to say about Tulips too, and obviously also of marijuana. I guess it is possible that if Dionysus was with us today he might well be a pot head. The stuff about marijuana is very interesting. Particularly the fact that it has become about 10 times more potent over the years and that this increase in potency is directly attributable to the ‘war on drugs’. Pollan makes an interesting case for the idea that if the US government hadn’t spent billions of dollars imprisoning its citizens and fighting a war it could never win, pot would still be coming into the States from Mexico and would not have been bred up to being the super drug it is today. Pollan says that his initial reaction to smoking pot was much the same as mine has always been. That its main effects seemed to be to make me feel paranoid and stupid. Having been brought up in the loony left I really didn’t need chemistry to help me be paranoid, or stupid, for that matter. Apparently, this is because on the rare occasions when I did smoke pot I was smoking ‘blue collar’ marijuana. Which is probably for the best.

Again, as with the apples and the tulips, I did know much of the story of marijuana before I started reading, but not really all of the details. The story of tulips causing a major economic bubble is worth reflecting on at the moment. The plants themselves are equally fascinating, as are little facts gleaned along the way about depression and plant viruses.

But the section on the potato is riveting – and not just for the Irish. This is similar to the first section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma on corn. We really are going to have to do something about the way we produce food – and if you need to know why, then reading this chapter will make it all clear. If the only way we can grow potatoes for McDonald’s fries is to kill the planet then perhaps (and this is just a suggestion) we shouldn’t be eating McDonald’s fries.

I think I liked The Omnivore’s Dilemma better than this one, but really, they were both fascinating and well worth the read.
Profile Image for Jen.
39 reviews20 followers
April 17, 2008
I've wanted to read this book ever since it came out, but, so far, I've been pretty deeply disappointed by it. From the jacket copy and reviews I'd read, I'd come to expect a poetic lay-science book about the entwined destinies of plants and humans. Hell, that's what the author's introduction led me to expect, too.

I did not expect, nor want, most of the chapter on the apple to be more concerned about the historical realities of Johnny Appleseed than with the apple itself. I didn't want the author to neglect almost the whole history of the fruit before 1776, by virtue, apparently, of being too lazy to do more than pay lip service to anything that didn't happen in America. If I hear one more cute little musing about Johnny Appleseed, I will start seriously considering not listening to this book anymore.

...I hope the damned thing gets more interesting in the next chapter, that's all I'm saying. But I don't have very high hopes.

(Updated: I don't think I ever even finished the dratted thing.)
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,146 reviews501 followers
January 29, 2018
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan introduces the possibility to the reader that plants are using insects, animals and humans to ensure their own survival. An interesting book about the symbiosis between all living organism and how Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory of natural selection is happening.
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?
What the author did in the book is to address the hybridizing of plant species to fit our needs. Although domesticated plants have been multiplied at a much greater rate than in nature, they also stand to disappear due to over-hybridization. This is highlighted in this book.

Hail to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers! How plants manipulate us, as well as animals and insects are riveting reading for sure. But how we domesticated plants, and the consequences of our own actions, are much more disturbing.

Watch this documentary for a fascinating insight into this part of plant behaviour. The information in this document is much more detailed than the book and one is of my favorites. If you watched this documentary, you will get a much better idea of how it works.

It is indeed a mysterious world to get involved in, even if you only want to read about it. Plants have souls and feelings. That's the bottomline! :-))

There so many anecdotes I can share concerning the interaction between plants, animals, insects and humans, that it will require a book to do so. So I will unhappily sit on my hands and just allow the urge pass me by for now! :-))

You probably will have to read the book, yes, definitely read the book. It's a great start. The author approached his subject with sensitivity and great care.


One comment in the book made me sit up straight. Had me hackles raised. :-) It's losing a star as a result.

I've sent an excerpt of the book to 30 botanist friends from all over the world, who worked with me on an international DNA project of the natural flora in our country, and just loved the reactions.

Serious researchers, doing their jobs for decades, could not believe this assumption made in the book:
According to Jack Goody, an English anthropologist ...who has studied the role of flowers in most of the world’s cultures—East and West, past and present—the love of flowers is almost, but not quite, universal. The “not quite” refers to Africa, where, Goody writes in 'The Culture of Flowers', flowers play almost no part in religious observance or everyday social ritual. (The exceptions are those parts of Africa that came into early contact with other civilizations—the Islamic north, for example.) Africans seldom grow domesticated flowers, and flower imagery seldom shows up in African art or religion. Apparently when Africans speak or write about flowers, it is usually with an eye to the promise of fruit rather than the thing itself.
That is certainly an interesting, and true statement. However, the next paragraph had us all gasping for air. Dumbfounded!
... the ecology of Africa doesn’t offer a lot of flowers, or at least not a lot of showy ones. Relatively few of the world’s domesticated flowers have come from Africa, and the range of flower species on the continent is nowhere near as extensive as it is in, say, Asia or even North America. What flowers one does encounter on the savanna, for example, tend to bloom briefly and then vanish for the duration of the dry season.
My first thought was that an anthropologist won't know that more than 80% of the ± 2400 Pelargonium species originate in southern Africa; numerous orchards, too many to list here, horde of proteas, ericas, lilies, flowering trees, and hundreds of highly sought-after succulents come from dear mother Africa.

Some of the international well-known botanists' comments (which can be shared publicly, the rest is unpublishable!) :

-- "I read that piece. It is nonsense."
-- "Badly written and poorly researched is my comment!"
-- "Africa is the best at all things natural, most especially flowers. I think they are also missing that flowers are attached to plants and we Africans have been more interested in the other parts as they hold the goodies that cure us of almost any illness. We used the flowers to help us get to the right plant. It has been so tied up in African culture that it is magical and mysterious – sangoma style – so the knowledge never made it into books."

-- "We laugh at this book from a dizzy height!"

Nevertheless, let's leave it at that. Michael Pollan concentrates on four domesticated plants and their uses to humans. The philosophy, history, and huge impact the plants had on human survival is discussed with a focus on the uses which satisfied mankind's four basic needs: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. He confirms why it has become highly essential to preserve the original plant species in nature. The more plants are altered, the less chance there is of the species to survive-a dangerous situation for both this planet and mankind.

Hybridization also happens in nature. For instance, bees pollinate a different variety of one species with the result of new species developing from it. Crassulas, in nature, is a prime example of this. So many cross-breeds develop that it is a headache for botanists to identify those species correctly.

Most people in the world are not aware of the huge challenges facing global food production. More than 60% of the world's population currently reside in cities, with little or no access to land. Countries, such as Japan, have already began to expand vertically, and not horizontally. A complete city, providing housing, schools, hospital and shopping areas are provided in high-rise buildings. There is simply not enough space horizontally anymore to expand.

Another current trend worldwide is for people to move out of suburbs into inner cities again. It is predicted that suburbs will become the future slums. Highways, the cost of vehicles, fuel and traffic congestion, the decline in oil resources, are discouraging the future development of more suburbs. Many boarded-up or abandoned houses can be found everywhere. Huge inner slums and squatter camps are popping up all over the world as a result of uncontrolled population growth, unemployment, job losses and lack of job opportunities.

Urban people are more and more unable to propagate their own food. Add to that the limited areas suitable for agriculture in the world, with limited water resources, and the picture becomes a little more complicated. While the world's human population increases at an alarming rate, the agricultural land to produce food for the masses do not. As a result it was necessary to develop plants that could produce more fruits on the same parcel of land and have new possibilities to protect themselves against water restrictions and pests.

Extended families do not manage farms anymore. Farmers are forced to mechanize, which is not only expensive, but also detrimental to oil resources in the world. A staggering number of farmers are leaving the industry annually due to the high costs and low profits (or no profits) in food production.

In hybridization, and the very expensive research to accomplish the outcomes, different plants are used to cross-breed in order to address the challenges. For instance, the DNA of one plant which has a natural defense against pests are bred with another plant which do not have the ability. My husband produced hybridized seeds of tomatoes which produced uniform color and fruit size and had a longer shelf life. I cannot name the company who sponsored it (not Monsanto), but can mention that a cantaloupe gene was used to accomplish this - another edible fruit. In pumpkin hybrids two different varieties were used to produce a uniform, round pumpkin which which was smaller in size and could fit into a shopping bag so that the consumer could handle it.

The author mentions an incident he read about in which the DNA of fireflies were added to tobacco plants! My philosophy is: if you haven't seen it with your own eyes, don't spread the story! I almost lost interest in this book after reading that. However, the author made the effort to visit the research facilities of the Monsanto company, interviewed farmers, and made an effort to understand what is recently done to increase food production and the methods that is used. He states that unrelated species in nature cannot be crossed. But then alleges that Monsanto crossed that barrier. "Nature", he says, "exercise a kind of veto over what culture can do with a potato."

Donkeys and horses were cross-bred, but the resulting animal were sterile. That's a fact in nature.

I agree with the author's statement:
All domesticated plants are in some sense artifical, living archives of both cultural and natural information that people have helped to "design". Any given type of potato reflects the human desires that have been bred into it.
There is sadly not enough space left on earth to allow people each a piece of land and enough water to produce their own food. We cannot go back to wearing natural fibers, since there are not enough grazing or space, once again, to keep the animals on that land which will produce those needed fibers. That's the bottom line. Too many people, too little natural resources. For instance, if we allow 7 billion people to strip mine plants in trying to return to natural medicines, there will be nothing left of nature. It is therefore essential that everything we use be produced commercially in particular agricultural zones all over the world, and to protect natural fauna and flora in designated protected zones.

We have to hybridize to survive as the human race. For the past seventy years it has become necessary and the challenge will be bigger in future. Humans are already dependent on it and there's no way out of it. If you are fortunate enough to have space for your own fruit and vegetable garden, make use of it to plant your own food. Use vintage seed and go organic, since you do not have to produce masses of fruits and vegetables for billions of people living in urban areas with limited space. Organic farming is labor intensive. Commercial farmers do not have enough labor resources to do the same.

The good news is that more and more commercial farmers are moving away from monocultural farming, with more involvement in the agronomic side of soil management. Biodiversity is making a comeback.

In the end, it is obvious from the discussions in the book, why Africa is still the cradle of mankind. Not mentioned in the book, it is just my own reaction. In Africa, people did not 'listen' to the flowers to spread them in unnatural selections. Africans had a vast knowledge of the value of plants in their natural state, for thousands of years, used it for various purposes, still do, but allowed the plants to remain part of the natural biodiversity around them. In fact, should an apocalypse hit this planet, it will be the people who respected the natural laws, who would survive. And that will be the Africans, most probably. They did not change nature, and lived in harmony with it all their lives. The message I take from the book, as an African and naturalist, is that my continent knew what they were doing when they left nature alone. Perhaps they were not left behind, they were in fact far ahead in time! Oh well, it is something to think about, at least.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it for sure. Sometimes there are fairy tales in real life. Just listen to the flowers!
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
603 reviews330 followers
April 10, 2019
4 🍎 🌷 🍁 🥔 (What, no cannabis leaf emoji? Leave it to Canada to provide a maple leaf stand-in)
Sweetness — Beauty — Intoxication — Control
Sex — Loveliness — Desire — Hunger
In 4 parts on a grand botanical scale and the perfect accompaniment on my nature walks.
Profile Image for Caroline.
498 reviews557 followers
June 10, 2015
This is a marvellous book, which discusses the science, sociology, aesthetics and culture, relating to four plants.


Because of who I am, the things that interested me most were the tulip and potato sections.

With the first, he discusses the notorious obsession surrounding tulip cultivation in Holland in the 17th century. With the second he discusses a genetically modified potato which was on sale in the US at the time he wrote the book, in 2001.

The potato is a variety called NewLeaf. This is no longer a product being promoted by the company which produces the seeds for it (Monsanto of course), but what the author has to say about it is still very relevant with regard to current and future vegetable research. It has left me feeling a lot less blazé about GM vegetables and monocultures. This may be the only way forward if we are to feed the vast number of people on this planet, but it comes at a price - and that price may be largely unknown. In contrast to the huge vegetable factory-type farming discussed in most of this section, Pollan also visits an organic farmer, and the difference hits you big time. Everything about the factory farms are so alien, and brutal in their approach, (they seemingly use anything they can to get the most produce for the least bucks); and everything about the organic farm is so much more harmonious, and working respectfully with nature. Interestingly the main factory-type vegetable farmer he spoke to, also grows organic vegetables, but just for him and his family's consumption. Go figure.

He also fairly briefly discusses the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine between 1845 and 1852, and that too was extremely interesting.

And now on to matters of the heart. The section on tulips in the 17th century was a great pleasure to read. Here I am just going to type a few chunks out of the book, (some rather chopped about I'm afraid) for those of you who fancy a brief excursion into a time of passion, madness and decadence.

Like most people who have read this book I thought it was a great read - equally fascinating and entertaining.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,023 followers
April 11, 2017
Reminded me of A History of the World in 6 Glasses with the introduction, except it was even worse. Very long, repetitious, & kept wandering into pseudoscientific philosophy. As well as Scott Brick read this, it was incredibly boring listening to the same points for half an hour, so I quit.

Yes, it is interesting to contemplate whether we domesticated a plant or it domesticated us. The evolutionary imperative of any organism is to spread copies of its DNA. Yuval Noah Harari mentioned it in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind a decade later - 'mentioned' being the operative word. That's all it's worth. It is a koan, a philosophical riddle that can mean many things depending on the observer.

The history & mechanisms of co-evolution are interesting, too. However, his assertion that plants are almost mystically so wonderful at biochemistry is ridiculous. Biochemically, bacteria & venomous critters can be just as weird as plants. We're no slouches ourselves in our ability to break down wide varieties of materials to feed ourselves. The idea that a strain of cannabis can get us high seems less strange to me than a mere fungus, yeast, doing everything from getting us high to making bread rise & even insulin to treat diabetes.

Anyway, I was looking for a scientific & historical book, not sophomoric philosophy.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,372 reviews1,420 followers
July 1, 2019
Packed with food-related history, trivia and stories, Michael Pollan attempts to explain how four types of plants have had such a large effect on humanity.

"We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests."

I believe that our lives are intimately intertwined with our environment, even if we can't quite see how. Pollan removes the veil between apples, tulips, marijuana, potatoes, and mankind in order to illustrate how the plants evolved and what kinds of shenanigans they've brought on civilization in the process.

"Our grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject. That's why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees."

My favorite chapter was about the tulips. Did you know at one point in the Dutch Republic a tulip bulb cost as much as a house? It was called "tulipmania" and it caused enormous havoc in the local economy when the tulip bubble burst.

I also learned about the evolution of flowers, which I didn't know anything about before reading this. I had only ever considered them from a spiritual perspective — I think it was Eckhart Tolle who talked about flowers being the "spiritual evolution of plants". It's rather interesting actually if you're into that kind of thing.

"But I do wonder if it isn't significant that our experience of flowers is so deeply drenched in our sense of time. Maybe there's a good reason we find their fleetingness so piercing, can scarcely look at a flower in bloom without thinking ahead, whether in hope or regret.

Pollan's writing style wanders no where quickly, so readers who have little patience for storytelling non-fiction may want to choose a different book. I rather liked it.

I think he may have oversimplified the plants and humanity relationship by picking only one motivating desire per plant. Let's be real, things are never as simple as that. But for the premise of this book, it worked well enough.

Basically, The Botany of Desire encourages readers to consider what plants get from us as much as what we get from them. It's a different perspective, like looking at your home from the level of a toddler rather than your usual height. There's things to learn and puzzle out and discover that you may have never even imagined.

Recommended for readers interested in botany and different worldviews.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,910 followers
March 10, 2020
It may sound like science fiction, but let me assure you... it's not.

Indeed, Pollan writes very well about the history and effects of four plants that have a huge impact on our lives... even if we may never have had two of them. His tone and his command of the various histories managed to make his writing both personal and wildly interesting.

I'm speaking of Apples, Tulips, Cannabis, and Potatoes, however.

I'll assume that everyone has had apples and potatoes, but I can also assume that everyone is at least AWARE of cannabis. As for tulips, they once caused rather fascinating Dionysian meltdown among the Dutch. Toppled a kingdom. That's pretty heavy. :)

The real history of Johnny Appleseed might very well have been about apple alcohol. Cider. But once upon a time, and thanks to the wildly diverse possibilities within the apple seed, the whole nation had thousands of different kinds of apples. People selected and bred the best and all of a sudden this nearly unique source of sweetness (sugar being either rare or distasteful thanks to the slave trade) made apples more than a huge market. Sweetness was the key, but when other foods replaced the apple's kingship of sweetness, by that time, the amazing variety had been reduced to a mere handful.

It was our desire for the apples that caused this domestication, but beyond that, the apple trees themselves found themselves in a paradise of genetic dispersion, so helped it along. Selective breeding programs have been a real thing for a long time.

Tulips, for their beauty and a sometimes erratic explosion of color (thanks to a virus that made it weaker) became a craze of economic speculation, driving the prices up until it bankrupted a kingdom.

Cannabis, also a victim or a happy co-author of selective breeding, has undergone massive changes as well. Maybe it was the prohibition against it that made it so coveted, but this is almost as crazy as the Tulip economic bubble.

Potatoes, the last chapter, is all about control. Monsanto. If you like to be freaked out and get the skinny on that debate (as of 2001, when this was published) I can promise you that it will do the job nicely. The kinds of things that are done today with pesticides, GMOs, and the forced termination of genes in order to force farmers to come back, repeatedly, to Monsanto, is a tragedy of epic proportions. And then there's the comparison of this mono-gene-culture to the one that starved a million people in the Potato Famine in Ireland, driving away half the population because they could no longer feed themselves.

Can something like that happen to us?

It's the big question. We're doing it to ourselves. Our need for perfect french fries may undo us all.
Profile Image for Suzy.
761 reviews244 followers
September 16, 2021
Wow! Just wow! This was another museum book club pick from our Minneapolis Institute of Art; while I like Michael Pollan it's unlikely I would have otherwise read this fascinating book. Even the description made it look doubtful that it would be my cup of tea. Boy, was I wrong!

Pollan looks at four human desires and four plants that satisfy those desires to explore the interdependence of humans and plants. The desires/plants are Sweet/Apple, Beauty/Tulip, Intoxication/Cannabis and Control/Potato. He busts the myth of Johnny Appleseed, shows how Tulipomania was the tech bubble of 17th century Dutch society, tells how cannabis produces the crystal clarity experienced by users and how it's different from other drugs, and illustrates the historical folly of man's quest to industrialize food production by creating botanical mono-cultures. My hunch is after reading this you will never eat a commercially grown potato again!

Pollan concludes that while humans believe in our ultimate control over plants, plants have equal influence on the destiny of mankind. Biodiversity is his premise and the story he tells to convince us of this will stick with me for a long time.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 43 books83.9k followers
January 5, 2021
I love the work of Michael Pollan, and his accounts of the apple, the rose, marijuana, and the potato are fascinating. I see the world in a new way.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
May 10, 2022
My second book by Michael Pollan--the first was really an essay on Caffeine that I heard on Audible--and he is such a good writer, his personality and ideas really engaging. Pollan shares examples here from the plant world to show how plants have evolved alongside humans. Mutual desire, plants and humans relationship, where plants evolve to make themselves more useful to humans or other creatures.

Pollan divides the book this way:

Apples--the desire for sweetness
Tulips--the desire for beauty
Cannabis--the desire for intoxication/transformation of mind
Potatoes--the desire for fundamentally useful food, and order

In each section you get as you might expect interesting information about the evolution of each plant. A 2001 book, it doesn’t feature much about climate change, but nor does it highlight what I see throughout, is that the development of these plants has as much to do with greed/capitalism as almost anything else.

Apples: “Johnny Appleseed” was pretty crazy, and less a contributor to the spread of healthy--apple-a-day-makes-the-doctor go away--apples--than booze:

“Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. That’s why he was so popular. That’s why he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio. He was the American Dionysus.”

I learned that apples grown from seeds are not as sweet as those developed from grafting:

“Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider. (“Hard” cider is a twentieth-century term, redundant before then since virtually all cider was hard until modern refrigeration allowed people to keep sweet cider sweet.)”

Tulips: “All the guests [of the Sultan Ahmed] were required to dress in colors that flattered those of the tulips. At the appointed moment a cannon sounded, the doors to the harem were flung open, and the sultan's mistresses stepped into the garden led by eunuchs bearing torches. The whole scene was repeated every night for as long as the tulips were in bloom, for as long as Sultan Ahmed managed to cling to his throne.”

The Sultan bankrupted his kingdom, buying millions of tulip plants. Then there is the grafting to create all the crazy colors:

“Queen of Night [a much desired and thus expensive tulip color] is as close to black as a flower gets, though in fact it is a dark and glossy maroonish purple. Its hue is so dark, however, that it appears to draw more light into itself than it reflects, a kind of floral black hole. In the garden, depending on the the angle of the sun, the blossoms of a Queen of Night may read as positive or negative space, as flowers or shadows of a flower.”

Cannabis: This is the most out-of-date section in that several states have legalized marijuana, though he has lots of stuff to say about the desire to alter consciousness through this and other drugs, much derided by Christianity, though the evolution of many world religions is also tied to drugs. Gettiny to mystical states without the sacraments?!

I am eager but then again hesitant to tell you how some witches reportedly got to the point of exotic, ecstatic, mystical frenzy, but the “ingestion” of cannabis was involved. . .

One interesting thing says about cannabis is that it can temporarily alter short-term memory, but Pollan comes to think this may not also be a bad thing:

“For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.”

Altered states can slow you down, stop all that daily anxiety. . .. .(sorry, just went to take his advice!).

Potatoes: We learn of the English-Irish conflicts and the potato famine and then, of the “frankenfoods” via Monsanto. One corporate farmer raises his own organic good and won't eat the genetically modified food he raises for others (and for profit). “Trust us,” a Monsanto manager says to Pollan, ha. As if. But now we are most of us eating genetically modified foods which we still do not have to be informed about on food labels. That’s one way money talks, in silence about genetic modification.

Pollan is a good writer:

“Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.”
Profile Image for Eh?Eh!.
363 reviews4 followers
October 3, 2007
Four common plants and I didn't know they each held such a rich history. Well, I was kind of familiar with marijuana's development (not from personal toking, honest Asian, but from being surrounded by tokers - hey, it was Oregon) and that it was completely villified in the "just say no" era of drug awareness education. The chapters on the apple, tulip, and potato offer cautionary evidence on the danger of destroying diversity in the name of commerce. Dratted industry and their shipping lives, appearance over taste, money over environmental responsibility; dratted consumers and our being trapped in busy schedules, cheap produce, the quick&easy, the short range.

Even though I'm probably being manipulated by the plants, I still want a garden in which to spread their genetic material. Plant pimp? If only.

On the subject of plants causing us to help them multiply by being appealing to us: I view this language as couching the concept in terms that we might understand, finding a common thread and expounding. I don't imagine Mr. Pollan meant plants as willfully selecting the characteristics that would cause us to replant and increase year after year. It's supposed to be a mutually beneficial interaction. If they could effect deliberate change in us, would they let us spray potatoes like that or make the mealy Red Delicious, I'm sure it was once actually delicious, the most common apple in US supermarkets? I wonder what it would be like if plants could fight us. Or maybe our dependence on the few varieties that now have weaknesses engendered by continuous cloning/inbreeding will result in a plant-revenge.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book703 followers
May 15, 2014
this was like NPR in printed form, and felt intended to be read in that medium. the potato chapter was great, the marijuana chapter irritating, the tulip chapter needlessly verbose (but full of some of the book's best trivia), the apple chapter...quixotic. it's all grotesquely bucolic, and the lack of any synthesis at the end left me underwhelmed. short, and by all means worth reading if it's all you have available.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,876 reviews3,382 followers
March 10, 2020
What a wonderful book!

Desire. There are many forms of it. It can be a food craving, it can be sexual between two of the same species, it can be the need to possess something, …
But what does all that have to do with botany? Well, humans aren’t the only ones wanting something. Plants, like any other life form on this planet, have desires too. The desire to spread and multiply for example.
Not to mention that beings can use another’s desire for their own advantage.

We have lived with plants for a long time. We need them and they, to some degree, need us. Would they be able to survive without humans? Absolutely. Because they’ve learnt to use other creatures (mammals as well as birds and insects) as well.
But who is domesticating who here?
In four chapters, the author examines four different kinds of desire represented by four different kinds of plants: sweetness as represented by the apple, beauty as represented by the tulip, intoxication as represented by cannabis and control as represented by the potato.

Thus, we discuss anything from how today’s varieties of apples are grown and cultivated (no, planting a seed from your favorite apple isn’t gonna get you anywhere, I’m afraid), to how the tulip became more valuable than gold in the Netherlands in the 17th century and how something as (seemingly) unimportant as beauty was also a great commodity, to the biology of intoxication and plants’ evolution to either kill or manipulate the brains of their consumers, to the cultivation / genetic manipulation of food like the potato and Monsanto’s impact on today’s farming industry.

We learn a lot about evolution and history, but also about politics and man’s need to dominate his world. Some of these stories (like that of Johnny Appleseed) are quirky or downright funny, others are fascinating. I knew much about apples and tulips but learned a lot about cannabis (from the transformation of the political landscape surrounding this mild drug to why plants use this kind of effect as a way to ensure we keep cultivating and even spreading it, to say nothing about the intoxication of animals). The last chapter was my least favourite one. That is not to say that it was bad. It was just that I already know how bad Monsanto is (not even necessarily morally but because of the spread of mono-cultures and limiting new forms from evolving / being invented) as well as genetic modifications to pesticides as much as the food plants themselves and the impact this has on the wilderness. I also know how crazy some food standards are (the best example was the requirements for french fries the author spoke about) and this makes the topic the most depressing of the four. *lol*

A holistic but quite unique view at plants and our relationship with them. I loved how he included everything from biology, chemistry and history to politics and (human as well as animal) psychology.

Last but not least, the writing style was also highly … addictive. *lol* Seriously, I always say that the key to non-fiction becoming more popular is having more authors who can break down complex topics in nice ways without dumbing any given subject down too much and being eloquent in a way that holds the readers’ attention. In this case, I guarantee you’ll even be enthusiastic!
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,748 reviews1,214 followers
April 13, 2017
I really enjoyed this book (and enjoyed the lecture I attended when the author talked about the book and answered questions.) He talks about 4 crops: apples, potatoes, tulips and marijuana, and the interactions between them and humans: history, culture, human psychology, and science, etc. I knew nothing much about botany and have never been particularly interested in that branch of science, but this book was a very easy read and I found it extremely fascinating. Gave it as a gift on a couple of occasions after I read it.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
45 reviews1 follower
July 30, 2008
I couldn't get into this book at all and gave up reading it after the first chapter. The premise was a good one, but Pollan's writing style drove me up the wall. I called it quits when he started analogizing Johnny Appleseed and Dionysius. Too much navel-gazing and not enough substance.
Profile Image for iko ikovski ∵.
1,337 reviews328 followers
November 21, 2021
buçukluk vermeyi sevmem ama aslında 2,5.

Geçen yine tatminsiz kaldım. Zaten histerik manyağın tekiyim, gelmeyin üstüme :(
Baştan söylüyorum. Kitabın içeriği oldukça dolu, çoğunu biliyor olsam da (okumak güzeldi), yazar bir aktivist ve gazeteci olduğu için birinci ağızdan araştırma yapmış. Ancak bu beni tatminsiz bıraktığı gerçeğini değiştirmez.

Kitap dört bitki üzerinden gidiyor ve şöyle diyor:
-türkçe edisyonda "dört temel insan arzusunu - tatlılık, güzellik, sarhoşluk ve kontrol- bunları tatmin eden dört bitki -elma, lale, kenevir ve patates- ile ilişkilendirip bu bitkilerin nasıl insanoğlunun en temel dürtülerini hoşnut etmek için evrildiğini gösteriyor. Ve sayfalar ilerledikçe görüyoruz ki, tıpkı bizim bu bitkilerden faydalandığımız gibi, bitkiler de bizden faydalanıyor bu karşılıklı oyunda.";
-orijinal edisyonda "…insanları ve evcil bitkilerin benzer şekilde karşılıklı bir ilişki kurduğunu ustaca gösteriyor. Tatlılık, güzellik, sarhoşluk ve kontrol olmak üzere dört temel insan arzusunu tatmin eden bitkilerle ustalıkla ilişkilendirir: elma, lale, kenevir ve patates. Aslında birçok farklı polen türü vardır. Tıpkı bu bitkilerden de yararlandığımız gibi biz de onları iyi yaptık. Peki gerçekten kim kimi evcilleştiriyor?"

Kitap, ikisinin bir sentezi gibi ancak doğru bir sentez değil, bence. Karar verememiş gibi.

En büyük sorunum şu oldu: boşa hikaye anlatıyor. Bana ne senin bahçenden be adam, bahçesini anlatmasının bi amacı var ama bu kadar niye uzatıyorsun niye? Kesinlikle, tam bir aktivist blogunun kitaba dönüştürülmüş hali. Hikaye bununla bitmiyor çünkü o kadar gereksiz yere, konuya giriş kullandığı meseleleri anlatıyor ki 'karşim sadede gel' oluyoruz. Adam bir appleseed fetişisti bunu anladım, anlattı da anlattı. Tüm bunlar diğer bitkilerde de geçerli. Ya kısa kes kısa. Çok merak edersem gider okurum; sadede gel, u çek ve konuyu anlat.

Kendisi bir botanikçi (öyle diyor?) Ve oldukça evrimci yaklaşıyor, bunda bir problemim yok ancak böyle birinin çıkıp bir anda kendince yorumlarından yola çıkarak adem ve havvaya sıçraması -ki elma bölümünde değil :D- garibime gidiyor. Yani mitle ilişkilendirdiği yer var, (nietzsche diyalektiği) apollon-dionysos sentezini metafor olarak kullanışı çok güzeldi. Ancak şu an detay veremiyor ve ifade edemiyorum, pek çok yerde 'sen evrimcisin kendine gel' dediğim oldu. Aşırı öznel, özele inilmiş ve subjektif yorumlar var. Olmaması gereken yerde felsefik laflar var. Elbette olmalı ve hepsi için muhalefet değilim ancak tersinin kitaba hakim olmasını isterdim.

Kaynakları kitabın arkasında vermiş, kitap içinde alıntıladıkları hariç. Olmamış. Çünkü arkadaki kaynakçada o kaynağı nerede kullandığını genel yazmış geçmiş, ancak ben kitapta çoğu yerde 'kaynağı nerede okumam lazım' sıkıntısı çektim. Ve çoğu zamanda yazılanın kaynaktan direk mi alındığını, yorumlanarak mı alındığını yoksa tamimiyle kendi bulgusu mu olduğunu çözemedim.

Bitkileri atfettiği arzunun neden o olduğuna dair sunduğu-yorumladığı 'kanıtlar' ve bunların dayanaklarını toplasanız, her bir bitki için 4'er sayfayı zorlarsınız en fazla. Gerisi, dayanakların hikayesi ve bahsettiğim aşırı özele inilmiş yorumlar- bilimsel olsun illa demiyorum. İşte sorun bu. Evet. Hal böyle olunca, işin içine sizin yorumlarınız giriyor, beyniniz otomatikman adamın dediğine bir antitez üretiyor.

Ayrıca, örnekleri-dayanakları oldukça yetersiz. Yani elbette her çiçekten bal alsın ve kaos yaratsın demiyorum ama, -ki bence blog havasının olmasına sebep olarak- her bitki için bir-iki örnek var. O kadar hikaye anlatacağına evreninin miti, tarihi, günümüzü içerdiği daha geniş örnekler kümesi seçebilirdi. O yüzden şöyle bir algı uyandırıyor 'bir yerde şöyle bişi olmuş, aa o bitki şuymuş demek ki'.

Daha bitiremem, bitki bitki anlatmam lazım yoksa haksızlık ediyor olurum.

SOYUT bölüm. Gerçekten çok saçma, dolaylama gibi bir şey yapmak istemiş ama olmamış. En sevmediğim bölüm oldu. Sayfalarca Appleseed denen herifi okudum. Bunun dayanağının 4 sayfa olmasını, 1 sayfa bile değil. Tek bir 'tarihi öykü'den yola çıkarak tatlılık diyor, en net olarak. Bizim hoşafı bile yazsa yazabilirdi. Tatlılık için başka evcilleştirilmiş bir bitki de seçebilirdi. Bu yüzden işte çok öznel ve subjektif bir yaklaşım. Gazeteci, evrimci ve botanikçi; oldukça normal.

NİTEL bölüm.
En azından mantıklı. ‘Güzelliğin arzusu’ tamlamasını karşılıyor. Daha çeşitli örnekler ve daha çok bitki-insan alışverişi olarak anlatıyor. Ama yani -evrime inanmasam da göz ardı etmediğim pek çok tez vardır- lalenin 'güzel' olmasına neden olan virüs hakkında söyledikleri... Sızladı darwin ve 7 kuşağının kemikleri. Başka bir amaçla veya kitabın girişinde kitabın amaç ve yöntemi ya da kitabın geneldeki yaklaşım dili daha farklı olsa sevebilirdim, ilginçti çünkü. Yetersizdi ancak sevdim bu kısmı okurken.

NET bölüm.
Başı-kıçı var. Ki bitkinin kendi öz niteliği sarhoşluk zaten. O yüzden okuması, haliyle yazması daha kolay. Soyut anlatırken çuvallasa da özniteliğe gelince iyi iş çıkarmış. Daha geniş tutmuş kaynakları, felsefik, psikolojik yorumları -bence doğru okuma yaptığı için- daha mantıklıydı. Kendi deneyimlerini daha okuyucu yararlı aktarmış. Ancak bahsettiğim zırvalıklardan da kurtulabilmiş değil.

KARARLI bölüm.
En iyi bölümdü sanırım. Kontrol arzusunun, iki canlı -insan & bitki- için de nasıl çalıştığını, iki canlının birbirini kontrolünü; yetmemiş ikisinin sentezinde teknoloji, pazar-meta ilişkisi, ekolojik-çevresel etkiler, psikolojik-fiziksel çıktılar gibi konularda da 'kontrol'ü anlatmış, ya da bunların sonuçlarını kontrol çerçevesinde anlatmış. Örnekleri ve tarihi anlattığı kısımlar yine fazla detaylı olsa da subjektiflikten daha arınmış bir bölüm. Başta patates için DOYGUNLUK demiş olsam da, kontrolü gerçekten iyi anlattığı için sevdim.

Kitapta ünv.de çevirip sunumunu yapmak ve paftalara referans olarak yazmaktan bıktığım amcaları okumak, bazen ilgimi çektiği için uykularımdan-kitabımdan feragat edip ders dinlediğim, hocayla tartıştığım zamanlarda (dersi ya dinlemem ya da dinler ve tartışırım) öğrendiğim kavramları okumak güzeldi. Üniversitem (gazi) bir boka yarayabiliyormuş demek ki asdfasfd

Çok hevesle almıştım halbuki, belki benim daha önceden okuduğum içerikler olduğu için, belki mevzunun kendisinin zaten son derece öznel ve subjektif oluşundan dolayı kendi tezimi ürettiğimden, bilemiyorum ancak keyifle okumadım çoğu yeri. Mit-felsefe-bilim üçlüsünde daha iyi bir kitap çıkabilirdi, HATTA KEŞKE POPÜLERİZMDEN FAYDALANSAYDI. Fekat tekrar ediyorum, boş kitap değil. Önerir miyim? Aman, özetini okuyun yeter.

"böcekler hep bizden daha akıllı olacak."
yok cnm hiç öpmiiim
Konsept fotoğrafçılık gibi kitaptaki "şeyler"i kullanıyorum derken abartmıyordum :')
Çok saçma bir fotoğrağraf of asdfasdf ne gerek var ey iko.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,063 reviews697 followers
April 18, 2019
This is an enjoyable book that wanders back and forth through the subjects of botany, history, and literary philosophy. An example of the later is quoted below:

"For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature's double nature--that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it--right there, in a flower--the meaning of life?"

By the time a reader has finished this book they'll know more about apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes than ever before. And along the way perhaps the reader will have picked up a slightly enhanced understanding the interaction of humans and plant life. And as indicated in the quote above, they will be introduced to the author's possible insight into the meaning of life. Every topic in this book was subjected to the Apollo vs. Dionysus analysis somewhere along the line.

In the section on marijuana the author provides a detailed description of what it means in terms of neurochemistry to be high on marijuana. This information was new to me. I got the impression this subject has not been fully researched and there still remains some speculation in the descriptions. He did make the definitive statement that nobody has ever died from an overdose of THC (active ingredient in marijuana). That certainly cannot be said for alcohol. So why is alcohol legal and marijuana outlawed? They both can pose a danger to society if misused, but one is publicly advertised with the caveat, "Please drink responsibly." The other is a crime to possess or use. Surely there's no rational basis for this difference.

The last section on the potato came down pretty hard on genetically engineered plants. I am not as emotionally opposed to this science as some appear to be. I'm in favor of asking questions and looking for problems that may arise. But I'm willing to eat genetically engineered food in the meantime. I figure that if we wait to be absolutely sure of no adverse consequences before using advances in science, all scientific and technological advances will cease.

My hat is off to Michael Pollan for being able to write an interesting narrative around rather ordinary topics. He has the skills of a talented story teller to combine historical and scientific facts with tales of his own personal adventures and interviews with other people. I had to give the book five stars because, quite frankly, I found it to be an enjoyable and interesting book.

Here's a short review of this book from my PageADay Book Lover's Calendar:
“Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule. Without flowers, we would not be,” writes Michael Pollan in his absolutely engaging book on the way plants and humans have lived and evolved together. His method is similar to that in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in that he takes four plants—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes—and gives us their perspective on the complex relationship between plants and humans. Delicious and nutritious reading.
THE BOTANY OF DESIRE: A PLANT’S-EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD, by Michael Pollan (Random House, 2002)

The following is a discussion of problems related to getting adequate nutrition on a vegan diet:
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,327 followers
February 17, 2016
Pollan represents one of my favorite types of writers: modern polymaths who can bring scientific, historic and literary knowledge to bear on whatever they're writing about. When it's done well, I don't care what the question is; for instance, tulips aren't really my thing, despite their presence on my dining room table right now. The conversation between history, literature and science really interests me, though, which is why nearly all of the books I read fall into one of those categories.

(That's sortof a joke.)

But I couldn't get into the first half of Botany of Desire, and the reason is that the book is padded. I've been curious about the reality behind the Johnny Appleseed legend, so it's terrific that he delved into it - but it would have made a great ten-page essay. Pollan stretches it for nearly 60 pages. He repeats himself (a lot); he circles around; he includes details about people he's met that are irrelevant and not all that interesting.

So far, so three star book.

The section on pot, though, gets hilariously loopier. Halfway through this chapter - after an interesting history of what the War on Drugs has done for pot, and right at the point where, in other chapters, he would have started to repeat himself - he instead ends up in Amsterdam, trying the new breeds of pot for the first time, apparently, in years, and the rest of the chapter is one long, adoring love letter to the glories of weed, written while ecstatically baked. Non-pot-fans might find this chapter less endearing than I did, but for me, as a casual fan of the drug and, more importantly, as a guy who finds the question of what mind-altering drugs do for us interesting, it was the best part of the book. Too bad he still can't get past the slightly apologetic tone most grown-ups who still smoke pot feel forced to adopt - why not just mention it matter-of-factly as a normal thing many people do? That is, after all, what it is. But still. Fun stuff.

The final chapter on potatoes contains some of the usual "Holy shit, we have no idea what we're doing" stuff on genetic engineering, and there's a "sky is falling" feel to it that made me roll my eyes, but his take on in it is interesting enough. I dug this book.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
November 19, 2015
Description: 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?

Read by Scott Brick

First up is the apple, John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed aka the American Dionysus. What a fruitcake that man was.

Triumph tulips


In my mind's eye, the author is named Pollen.

Thoroughly enjoyed this. Recommended.

TR The Omnivore's Dilemma
4* The Botany of Desire
Profile Image for Lightreads.
641 reviews523 followers
December 28, 2008
A brief but compelling history of four plants whose genetic destiny has been markedly altered by man – the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato. Pollan’s argument is that, though we see domestication as a strictly top-down, subject-to-object process, there really may also be some co-evolutionary force at work. Johnny Appleseed’s efforts were to the overwhelming advantage of apple genetic proliferation, and the science of mass potato farming means more seeds are planted every year. But we’ll get to the argument bit in a minute.

As quirky, offbeat history, this is fabulous. It turns out botany is an incredibly versatile vehicle in which to travel from social psychology to religion to bioethics. Pollan makes fascinating detours through early American advertising schemes, pauses briefly to describe the hallucinogenic mixture of mushrooms and opium European witches would administer via dildo, and then hops blithely on to the cost-benefit economics of potato plants engineered to make their own pesticide. It’s a wonderfully engaging trip, made all the more so by Pollan’s lucid, thoughtful, frankly lovely writing. I haven’t enjoyed a spot of nonfiction prose on a purely esthetic level in a long time, and for that pleasure alone I could recommend this book.

As for the argument – how best to put this – it’s not so much one. This whole co-evolution idea occurred to Pollan one day as he was gardening, and it never really leaves the realm of warm afternoon, busy hands, strange and intriguing thought. The whole thing comes out interesting, undeniably pretty, but ultimately nothing more than an intellectual exercise. An exercise I enjoyed, mind you, but I’m really not after musings over the Apollonian and Dionysian paradigms in my discussions of anything related to evolution: I’m after, you know, scientifically sound genotypic mechanisms. But like I said, I was perfectly happy to go along. I just fervently hope no one came away from this book believing this is what is meant by “theory of evolution.”

Eclectic, engaging subject matter. A bit of pleasant but deeply fluffy intellectual masturbation tacked around the edges for an excuse. Wonderful writing. A good time, all around.

Profile Image for Numidica.
362 reviews8 followers
February 23, 2019
Michael Pollan has convinced me to buy only organic potatoes from now on.

The Botany of Desire is a book which presages two of Pollan’s later books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and How to Change Your Mind; the other two books were written later, and are better books, in my opinion. That said, there is much to learn in reading the Botany of Desire (BoD, hereinafter). Pollan, like me, is a gardener, so I have common beliefs on many issues touching land use and food; anyone who has gardened for a long time comes to understand soil and ecology, and Pollan clearly does.

BoD is divided in four sections: Apples, Tulips, Marijuana, and Potatoes. The section on potatoes was clearly the basis for, or dry run for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but Omnivore’s Dilemma is a better treatment of modern agriculture in general, as well as organic farming and its uses. I will say the recitation of pesticides and herbicides that get dumped on standard potato crops is scary; one farmer said that after application of one of the more potent pesticides, he does not go into the fields for five days for any reason, and he does not allow his employees to do so. Also, the use of GMO plants with built-in pesticides like bt (bacillus thuringiensis) engineered into their DNA is frightening, especially given the now widely known worldwide decline of insects. Pollan’s point, which is perhaps better made in Omnivore’s Dilemma, is that it doesn’t have to be this way; for a slightly higher price we could have organic produce, or at least we could have far less chemically treated produce.

The other point Pollan makes, both with regard to potatoes and apples is that clones (which is what all the varieties of spuds and apples are) are more susceptible to insect pests and eventually lose vigor. Remember the term, “hybrid vigor”? Clones don’t have it, because, well, they’re clones, not hybrids.

The section on marijuana is interesting, but Pollan covered the same ground much more comprehensively in How to Change Your Mind.

The section on tulips mostly was uninteresting to me because it was more about the tulip “bubble” in Holland in the 1600’s than about gardening or plants, and I could have learned all I wanted to know about “tulipmania” in three or four paragraphs, versus the twenty or more pages spent on it. Also, I’ll admit that as a gardener I dislike tulips. One could create a plastic replica of a tulip that has as much interest to me; I don’t like formal gardens. There was some interesting stuff in this section about how plants have evolved to attract pollinators (bees, mostly).

As for apples, that part was interesting, and I learned some things I did not know, though perhaps a bit more than I wanted to about Johnny Appleseed.

So my recommendation is to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma to learn about food, and How to Change Your Mind to learn about psychoactive drugs; both are excellent books. If you read those two, you can decide for yourself whether you would like the added information available in BoD. As always, Pollan’s prose is engaging, and he clearly has studied in depth the subjects he is writing about, though sometimes he tells the reader a bit more than is absolutely necessary. Three and a half stars.

Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
671 reviews383 followers
December 29, 2021
“𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘣𝘺 𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘨𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘦 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 𝘥𝘳𝘰𝘱 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘢𝘤𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘪��𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘭𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘮𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵, 𝘴𝘰 𝘦𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘴."

I have a soft spot for quotes about time and plants—Michael Pollan’s *The Botany of Desire* deftly handles the latter, taking the reader on a journey through the cultivation of four plants tied to four fundamental human desires.

Written with lyrical mirth and witty insights, Pollan (what a perfect name) demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed reciprocal relationships throughout history.

Michael Pollan is an absolute delight to read; *How to Change Your Mind* was one of my favorite books of 2019 and *This Is Your Mind on Plants* was one of my favorite books of 2021—highly recommend!


“𝘚𝘰𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘳 𝘰𝘳 𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘤𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘪𝘴𝘵-𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘥 ���𝘱𝘶𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘥𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘢𝘤𝘤𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 𝘴𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘦𝘥 𝘤𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩, 𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘸𝘦𝘵𝘭𝘺 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘵𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘨𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘴𝘵 𝘶𝘯𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘩𝘭𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘩𝘭𝘺 𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘮𝘢𝘴. 𝘐𝘵'𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘰𝘧 𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘩 𝘴𝘰𝘪𝘭 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘩 𝘴𝘰𝘪𝘭 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘰𝘳 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘥 𝘶𝘱𝘰𝘯, 𝘢𝘴 𝘪𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘥, 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘴𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘣𝘦𝘦𝘯 𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘣𝘰𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦𝘥: eau de pomme de terre. 𝘠𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘩𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘩 𝘪𝘯 𝘪𝘵, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦'𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘰𝘻𝘺 𝘬𝘪𝘵𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘰, 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘰𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘪𝘴, 𝘢𝘵 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘵 𝘣𝘺 𝘯𝘰𝘸, 𝘵𝘰 𝘶𝘴, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘰𝘧 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘵 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧, 𝘢 𝘴𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘢𝘴 𝘣𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘬𝘭𝘺 𝘸𝘦𝘭𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘴 𝘴𝘱𝘶𝘥 𝘧𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘩, 𝘢 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦𝘴 𝘶𝘱 𝘮𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘴𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘢𝘴 𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘭𝘺 𝘢𝘴 𝘧𝘭𝘢𝘷𝘰𝘳𝘴. 𝘛𝘰 𝘴𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘢 𝘳𝘢𝘸 𝘱𝘰𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘰 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘥𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘤 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘥.”

Pollan Ratings (so far):

How to Change Your Mind ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This Is Your Mind on Plants ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Botany of Desire ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
June 18, 2018
This may be my favorite Pollan book of all time. It's so beautifully written and full of wonder at the plant world. The section on tulips as a flower embodying Apollo and Dionysus and about the apple were just brilliant.

However, I do think the goes a little nuts about GMOs at the end. I'm tempted to go with him into skepticism, but I am not sure it's warranted. I think the dangers of monoculture are real, but I am not as concerned about the GMOs as he is
Profile Image for Allie.
137 reviews127 followers
November 14, 2020
Do you talk to your plants? More to the point, do you think your plants talk back to you? If so, I have just the book for you…

The Botany of Desire explores the relationship between plants and humans, but rather than focusing on human agency, food journalist and gardener Michael Pollan tells the story from the plants’ point of view. He takes the idea of co-evolution as his starting point: the idea that two species evolve in a mutually dependent manner leading to the selection of certain traits. Pollan attempts to apply this evolutionary concept to human interactions with plants.*

"Plants hit on a remarkably clever strategy: getting us to move or think for them…it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees."

Reading this book was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; the perspective felt distorted. I was not persuaded that Pollan completely understood some of the scientific concepts that he was trying to explain. It all felt a little…Gladwell-esque. Pollan tries to illustrate the intertwined evolutionary relationship between plants and humans by telling the story of four plants and the desires that they satisfy.

Sweetness: the first section focused on apples and the story of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed). Pollan dedicates many, many pages to Chapman’s life and his ‘Dionysian’ apple planting efforts, which allowed homesteaders to get reliably drunk on alcoholic cider. (Inspired by this chapter, I created a drinking game where I had a sip of scotch every time Pollan mentioned Dionysus or Apollo. I was forced to abandon this delightful crutch since there were so many references to both gods, I was getting woozy.)

Beauty: the second section covered the speculative boom and bust around tulip mania in Holland, with some random thoughts about flowers throughout history and some general ideas around beauty (e.g., symmetry is appealing as a proxy for good health). There were a lot of opinion-led statements such as “beauty always takes place in the particular” that didn’t resonate with me; I find the ocean more beautiful in its entirety than a solitary wave.

Intoxication: by far the most interesting, the third section discussed how humans seek intoxication through plants, which produce stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, THC, and hallucinogens. There is some fascinating published research about these drugs, but Pollan spirals away from the science to speculate on how THC mediates consciousness and can enhance creativity by blunting memory and creating the perception of heightened senses. (Helpful tip: you can get high from hallucinogens secreted by some toads.)

Control over the natural environment: the final section is all about the humble potato, from the diverse varieties grown by the Aztecs to Monsanto's genetically engineered NewLeaf potatoes. Pollan is in his element as a food journalist, talking to scientists about gene transfer and farmers about the impact of GMO potatoes on their livelihoods. Pollan has a clear bias in favor of organic farming, but he did raise interesting concerns about the unintended consequences of tinkering with the plant genome (e.g., genes can “jump” to other plants via cross-pollination and the impact on the rest of the food chain is unknown.)

Perhaps if Pollan had focused on just one of the four desires, it would have been a more cohesive reading experience. But while there are interesting facts peppered throughout each chapter, the book covers so many different ideas that are only tangentially related and there was no space for thoughtful analysis. After finishing the book, I’m still not convinced by the author’s premise that:

"Desire might be too strong a word for whatever it is that drives plants to reinvent themselves so that we might do their bidding, but then, our own designs have often been no more willful than the plants."

Honestly, finishing this book was a Herculean task; only my determination not to disappoint my friend Scot who was reading the book with me enabled me to climb this metaphorical Mount Olympus. (Where, I should note, I looked down at all the plants from my lofty perch. Not a toad in sight up here!) It’s a shame, because Pollan writes beautifully, and could probably be very compelling if he was covering a topic where he has more expertise.

*This is a established concept in biology applied to relationships between plants and pollinating insects or animals; predators and prey; pathogens and humans; and some domesticated animals (like dogs) and humans. The idea that plants and humans have a co-evolutionary relationship does not seem to be well-supported in the scientific literature. I mean, it’s not as far out there as the people who claim plants are silently screaming when we cut them down, but it’s pretty fringe.
Profile Image for Sud666.
1,920 reviews156 followers
November 6, 2021
Michael Pollan's book is certainly an interesting one. It germinates (pun intended) in Pollan's mind, one day, as he was working in his garden. He thought what if human beings were similar to bumblebees? It is an interesting take on "coevolution", which stipulates that two parties can act on each other to advance their individual interests but end up producing a mutually beneficial outcome.

What if plants were able to develop traits that would cause other animals to help them in their goal to reproduce? As plants are immobile, they tend to rely on wind and rain to spread their pollen. But with the evolution of angiosperms, plants with flowers and seeds, animals had a new reason to eat those plants and they spread the seeds for the plant, or pollen in the case of the bee.

He then stipulates that the four plants he covers have also evolved in such a way as to appeal to the human animal and, by doing so, have been able to spread their seed all across the world. The four plants he looks at are perfect examples of how they have managed to "attract" human beings. Pollan also links each of these plants to a specific desire. They are as follows:

The apple, which utilizes the sense of sweetness.
The Tulip, which utilizes the sense of beauty.
The potato, which utilizes the sense of control.
The marijuana plant, which utilizes the sense of intoxication.

Each of these plants gets a detailed history. You will learn where they came from, how they were modified and how they entered into the human world. The stories are interesting, though I could have done with less of the personal ruminations, it is the history and the science behind these four plants that make this an interesting book to read.

It is hardly overly technical and quite easy for a science dunce to comprehend. If you are looking for something more science-heavy, I'd pass on this. This is a book that tells the tale of science through the prism of human desire. Pollan does a good job of explaining things like the Diyonisian concepts and how they melded into how humans view intoxication and their views on marijuana.

An interesting book that will make you think and while not science-heavy, this is a book that will interest science and non-science people alike. Interesting anecdotes and some cool history make this a rather unique book.
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