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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World Hardcover – May 8, 2001


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 271 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (May 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375501290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375501296
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 5.7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (309 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #246,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Working in his garden one day, Michael Pollan hit pay dirt in the form of an idea: do plants, he wondered, use humans as much as we use them? While the question is not entirely original, the way Pollan examines this complex coevolution by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants is unique. The result is a fascinating and engaging look at the true nature of domestication.

In making his point, Pollan focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. He uses the history of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how both the apple's sweetness and its role in the production of alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west, thus greatly expanding the plant's range. He also explains how human manipulation of the plant has weakened it, so that "modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop." The tulipomania of 17th-century Holland is a backdrop for his examination of the role the tulip's beauty played in wildly influencing human behavior to both the benefit and detriment of the plant (the markings that made the tulip so attractive to the Dutch were actually caused by a virus). His excellent discussion of the potato combines a history of the plant with a prime example of how biotechnology is changing our relationship to nature. As part of his research, Pollan visited the Monsanto company headquarters and planted some of their NewLeaf brand potatoes in his garden--seeds that had been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide. Though they worked as advertised, he made some startling discoveries, primarily that the NewLeaf plants themselves are registered as a pesticide by the EPA and that federal law prohibits anyone from reaping more than one crop per seed packet. And in a interesting aside, he explains how a global desire for consistently perfect French fries contributes to both damaging monoculture and the genetic engineering necessary to support it.

Pollan has read widely on the subject and elegantly combines literary, historical, philosophical, and scientific references with engaging anecdotes, giving readers much to ponder while weeding their gardens. --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan's fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature. Using the histories of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis to illustrate the complex, reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world, he shows how these species have successfully exploited human desires to flourish. "It makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees," Pollan writes as he seamlessly weaves little-known facts, historical events and even a few amusing personal anecdotes to tell each species' story. For instance, he describes how the apple's sweetness and the appeal of hard cider enticed settlers to plant orchards throughout the American colonies, vastly expanding the plant's range. He evokes the tulip craze of 17th-century Amsterdam, where the flower's beauty led to a frenzy of speculative trading, and explores the intoxicating appeal of marijuana by talking to scientists, perusing literature and even visiting a modern marijuana garden in Amsterdam. Finally, he considers how the potato plant demonstrates man's age-old desire to control nature, leading to modern agribusiness's experiments with biotechnology. Pollan's clear, elegant style enlivens even his most scientific material, and his wide-ranging references and charming manner do much to support his basic contention that man and nature are and will always be "in this boat together."

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


More About the Author

Michael Pollan is the author of five books: Second Nature, A Place of My Own, The Botany of Desire, which received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best nonfiction work of 2001 and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon, and the national bestsellers, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food. A longtime contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. His writing on food and agriculture has won numerous awards, including the Reuters/World Conservation Union Global Award in Environmental Journalism, the James Beard Award, and the Genesis Award from the American Humane Association.

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Customer Reviews

It is a great book, very interesting, and very fun to read!
Christine Kirven
Pollan examines apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes and finds that we are serving them well.
R. Hardy
It's one of those books that you'll keep thinking about long after you've read the last page.
Charlie White

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

194 of 207 people found the following review helpful By Thomas L. Ogren on June 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Two different people sent me copies last week of Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire. I'm a writer (Allergy-Free Gardening, from Ten Speed Press) myself and a lifetime horticulturist and I guess they figured I'd appreciate this book. They were right too. I found this book extremely hard to put down. Pollan is a writer first and a botanist second but he is remarkably observant about horticultural matters. He is also unusually talented at explaining complex ideas and he does so in a way that is fresh, fun, often funny, and suprisingly profound. Pollan's section on Johnny Appleseed alone is worth the price of the book. Here Johnny is a multi-dimensional character, one not just eccentric, but a shrewd fellow with great vision and considerable human frailty. The Botany of Desire is chiefly the history of the tulip, apples in America, cannabis, and the potato. This may not sound like the recipe for a really satisfying read, but in Michael Pollan's more than able hands, it certainly is. If you enjoy gardening, history, or just plain old very decent writing, I expect you too would appreciate this excellent book.
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Format: Hardcover
"What existential difference is there between the human being's role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebees?" "Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? With profound questions like these, Michael Pollan pollinates your mind with a new world view of our relationships with plants, one in which humans are not at the center. The book focuses on four primary examples of how plants provide benefits to humans that lead humans to benefit the plants (apples for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication, and the potato for control over nature's food supply). You will learn many new facts in the process that will fascinate you. The book's main value is that you will learn that we need to be more thoughtful in how we assist in the evolution of plant species.
The book builds on Darwin's original observations about how artificial evolution occurs (evolution directed by human efforts). So-called domesticated species thrive while the wild ones we admire often do not. Compare dogs to wolves as an example. Mr. Pollan challenges the mental separation we make between wild and domesticated species successfully in the book.
The apple section was my favorite. You will learn that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) was a rather odd fellow who was actually in the business of raising and selling apple trees. He planted a few seeds at the homes where he stayed overnight on his travels. Mr. Chapman had apple tree nurseries all over Ohio and Indiana, which he started 2-3 years before he expected an influx of settlers. Homesteading laws required these settlers to plant 50 apple or pears trees in order to take title to the land. And these apples were for making hard apple cider, not eating apples. He was the "American Dionysus" in Mr.
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69 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Foster HALL OF FAME on November 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Read this book and you may never eat a conventionally grown potato again. I know I won't. If I hadn't been a dedicated organic gardener for over 40 years, I would become one after reading THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. I find it incredibly puzzling that more people haven't bitten the organic bullet. I truly believe a diet of conventionally grown food can shorten your life and bring on all sorts of aches, pains, and illnesses you might not otherwise suffer. Organic gardening works and the stuff you grow is better for you. If you can't grow it, for goodness sakes, hustle on down to your closest Whole Foods store and buy it. Organic food may be more expensive than conventional foods, but in the long run you will save on medical bills.
Michael Pollen's book is simply the best set of gardening essays I've read in a long while, maybe ever. And that's saying a lot because I am a big fan of gardening books (I've reviewed over 100 of them for Amazon). I haven't read something so enjoyable since Henry Mitchell's columns and books. It's not often a book of garden essays can make you laugh (misadventures with Mary Jane), make you cry (one million Irish dead of starvation), make you angry (one million Irish dead), and make you smile (is there any tulip so lovely as `The Queen of the Night?'
Pollan covers four plants, Apples, Tulips, Marijuana, and Potatoes. His first chapter on apples, disabused me of all my notions about Johnny Appleseed. I had read Anna Pavord's book THE TULIP, so the tulip section of Pollan's book was the least interesting for me, although he added some interesting anecdotal information.
The best section of this book as far as I am concerned is the chapter on Marijuana. My husband is a substance abuse counselor and I recommended the chapter to him.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Pollan makes the rather striking point in the Introduction that we and our domesticated plants are involved in a coevolutionary relationship. We use them and they in turn use us. The bumblebee thinks that he is the "subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar" is the object. "But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom." (p. xiv)
And so it is with us. There is no subject and no object. The grammar is all wrong. We plant and disperse the apple, thinking we act from our volition, yet from the apple's point of view, it has enticed us through its bribe of sweetness to further its propagation. It has played upon our desire. The same can be said of every other plant "domesticated" by humans. As Pollan points out, from a larger point of view our farms and gardens are just another part of the "wild" environment. And we, too, are part of that environment--increasingly a most significant part. The plants, and of course the cows, the ants, the roaches, the dogs and the cats, adjust to the environment, or they don't. The ones that do will flourish. Those that don't, the mighty oak, perhaps, the hard wood trees of equatorial jungles, the tigers and the condor, that cannot, will go the way of the dodo.
This idea is not original with Pollan, of course, but nowhere have I seen it presented so convincingly. In a sense we are not the doer, we are the done. Pollan illustrates his thesis in four chapters on the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
In the chapter on tulips and the tulip mania we learn that we are probably hard-wired to love flowers. Why? Because "the presence of flowers...
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