In his usual fashion, Michael Pollan has taken a topic that many of us take for granted - in this case vegetation and it's relationship to man - and turned it on it's head. In the Botany of Desire, Pollan sets out to explain the history of plant evolution, how co-evolution works, and how the desires and needs of humans have driven plant evolution. He takes the story of four plants - apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes, four human desires - sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control, and wrote four fascinating essays filled with history, trivia, and science.
Unsurprisingly Pollan has left me with much to think about and even more to research. The story of the apple was by far my favorite - from both a historical and natural perspective. I always took the story of Johnny Appleseed to be an American myth, a tall tale. I never realized just how much of his story was based on history and I certainly didn't realize just how much the place of the apple in American culture owes to him. Nor did I know anything about how apples propogate or that they aren't even native to America, but actually spread throughout the world from forests in Khazakstan where you can find apple trees 60 feet tall and apples in any color you can imagine. The story of the tulips and the tulipomania that swept Holland was one I knew better, yet it was still quite interesting and definitely imparted some information I didn't know - particularly that while uncommon today, a virus that produced color variations in tulips is a large part of what made the tulip s desirable. The science behind the marijuana industry and how the American government's attempts to irradicate have actually pushed it evolve into something greater then it had been was all new to me and made for an interesting read. Moreso than any other section relied on science. This, combined with my complete lack of interest in drugs, made it my least favorite of the four essays, but compelling nonetheless. The final essay on potatoes was almost as interesting as that on apples. I learned so much about potatoes from their history in the Andes mountains to their place today in some of the most advanced sciences that it has really changed the way I look at this humble vegetable.
As I said above, Pollan has left me with much to think about and as usual has not dissapointed me. I'm definitely not going to be looking at any of these four plants in quite the same way as before. Pollan has a way of making one reconsider what we take for granted, whether it be our relationship to plants as in The Botany of Desire, or food as in Omnivore's Dilemma. I reccomend his books to everyone, and this book hasn't done anything to change that. While not the must-read that Omnivore's Dilemma is, The Botany of Desire is definitely a book that has something for everyone.