This guide to The Botany of Desire, the PBS television documentary based on the book by Michael Pollan1, is designed to help viewers get the most from their viewing experience. It provides a synopsis of the film and offers discussion questions about each of its four chapters that can help audiences use the film as a springboard for exploring their own thoughts and experiences.
Funding for The Botany of Desire was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Columbia Foundation/San Francisco and public television viewers2.
1. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World was published in 2001.
2. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0307967. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Flowers. Trees. Plants. We've always thought that we controlled them. But what if, in fact, they have been shaping us? Using this provocative question as a jumping off point, The Botany of Desire takes viewers on an exploration of our relationship with the plant world – seen from the plants' point of view.
School children often learn about the mutually beneficial relationship between honeybees and flowers. To make their honey, the bees collect the flowers' nectar and in the process spread pollen, which enables the flowers to reproduce. The Botany of Desire proposes that people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. "We don't give nearly enough credit to plants," says Pollan. "They've been working on us – they've been using us – for their own purposes."
The Botany of Desire examines this relationship by telling the stories of four plants that ensured their survival and expanded their habitat by satisfying our most basic yearnings. Connecting fundamental human desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control with the plants that satisfy them – the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato – The Botany of Desire intends to show that we humans don't stand outside the web of nature; we are very much a part of it.
The program begins with Pollan in a California garden and sets off to roam the world – from the potato fields of Idaho and Peru to the apple orchards of New England and Kazakhstan; from a medical marijuana hot house to the lush tulip gardens of the Netherlands.
With Pollan as on-screen guide, The Botany of Desire explores what he calls the "dance of domestication" between people and plants. By exploring the history of these four familiar plants, the film seeks to answer the question: Who really has been domesticating whom?
The Botany of Desire traces the apple's journey from its origin in the ancient forests of Central Asia, across the Silk Road to Europe, and eventually to America. There, in the early 19th century, it found its ultimate promoter: an eccentric character named John Chapman, who became known as Johnny Appleseed. Unlike most of the commercial apple trees cultivated today, which are grown by grafting buds onto young tree stalks, Chapman's apple trees – as you might expect from his nickname – were grown from apple seeds. Pollan explains the surprising fact that apples rarely pass on their flavor or even their appearance through their seeds. Apple trees grown from seeds tend to be biologically very diverse, and most of the fruit those trees will bear will taste bitter rather than sweet.
So Chapman's apples were not particularly tasty to eat. Yet these bitter apples were perfect for something – the making of alcoholic, or "hard" cider, a potent libation that became the drink of choice for everyone from paupers to presidents. But by the late 19th century, drunkenness was on the rise, and an outcry, led by the hatchet-wielding prohibitionist Carrie Nation, arose against the evil apple.
It wasn't until after 1900 that the apple became the fruit we know today. Growers cloned the sweetest apples by grafting them, and ingeniously marketed them as the ultimate health food, guaranteed to "keep the doctor away." Soon, only a handful of varieties of apples were being produced, in vast operations that scientists call "monocultures," which grow just one genetic variety.
Stripped of the genetic diversity plants rely on to survive disease, the relatively few popular apple varieties grown in monoculture have become increasingly vulnerable to insects, bacteria and viruses. Today, apple growers are some of the biggest consumers of pesticides. Scientists in Geneva, New York, are trying to help the apple prosper with fewer pesticides by harnessing the defenses that lie hidden in its genes. And in Northern New Hampshire, an independent-minded apple grower, who raises a variety of antique apples, hopes to revive the market for that once vilified drink, hard apple cider.
By satisfying the human desire for beauty, the tulip has risen from obscurity to fame – but along the way, it has also wreaked havoc. The Botany of Desire travels to the Netherlands, the home of "tulip mania," and introduces the viewer to growers and breeders who devote their lives to this lovely flower, which serves no practical human purpose other than to bring pleasure to our eyes.
Like the apple, the first wild tulips sprang up in Central Asia. They made their way to Turkey, where they bewitched one of the world's most powerful men, Sultan Ahmed III of the Ottoman Empire, whose reckless spending on the flowers helped to topple him from his throne.
But the trouble that tulips caused for the sultan paled in comparison to what happened in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. Between 1634 and 1637, tulips swept the Dutch into a collective frenzy that became known as "tulip mania." As the Dutch became rich through their dominance of world trade, it became fashionable to cultivate impressive flower gardens. And nothing said success like a relatively new arrival from the East: the tulip – particularly the very rare variety called Semper Augustus. Single bulbs of Semper Augustus were so hotly desired that they were being sold for a price equivalent today to 10 or 15 million dollars. But when the tulip bubble burst, fortunes were wiped out and the Dutch economy reeled from the blow.
The Botany of Desire visits Dutch scientists, breeders and the awe-inspiring Aalsmeer Flower Market, through which passes one out of every three flowers sold in the world. One of the largest buildings on the planet – larger than 200 football fields – the Aalsmeer market sees some 19 million flowers change hands each day. Pollan says, "Flowers are exquisitely useless. They're this great froth of extravagance in our lives. But that there is a multibillion-dollar trade in these wonderful, useless, beautiful things is kind of great."
While tulip breeders certainly pay meticulous attention to their plants, nothing compares to the high-tech, 24-hour intensive care provided by the growers of another seductive plant: cannabis, better known to Americans as marijuana. The Botany of Desire explores the history and physiology of this lowly weed – one that has managed to make itself so desirable that nearly 15 million Americans risk arrest each month by smoking it.
While fruits produce sweetness and flowers produce beauty, some plants produce chemicals that have the power to alter human consciousness. And, like our craving for sweetness or love of beauty, the desire to change consciousness appears to be hardwired into humans. Cannabis has cashed in on that desire and spread from its birthplaces in India and China throughout the world where passionate, and mostly illegal, gardeners tend to its needs with uncompromising devotion.
Almost all societies permit the use of some form of intoxicant, although they differ on which substances to favor and which to forbid. Cannabis is now illegal in most countries, but many cultures throughout history have embraced it. In 19th century America, it was a common treatment for labor pains, asthma and rheumatism. But Americans' perception of cannabis began to change when, in the 20th century, Mexican immigrants brought with them across the border the habit of smoking the plant they called "marijuana." The practice soon spread to the jazz community, and was eventually embraced by an entire generation in the 1960s.
The ensuing U.S. government crackdown on marijuana had the unintended consequence of driving a great deal of U.S. cannabis growing indoors. There, hidden from sight, the plant could be pampered under controlled growing conditions, and the levels of its psychoactive ingredient, THC, could be steadily increased. Because of these indoor growers' passionate attention to their plants' every need, Pollan calls these illicit cultivators of cannabis "the best gardeners of my generation."
The Botany of Desire travels to Israel to visit Raphael Mechoulam, the scientist who discovered THC in the 1960s and who also, decades later, discovered that we humans manufacture our own THC-like substance inside our own brains. It's called anandamide, and it seems to be critical to a vitally important, yet often-overlooked, mental process: forgetting. Researchers hope to tap into anandamide's power to someday help people who suffer from mental disorders that involve an inability to forget, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The potato – a plant that yields an abundant amount of food per acre – has not only thrived but also greatly expanded its habitat by gratifying our desire to exert control over our environment. Not content with the potato in its natural state, we have tried to alter this plant by means of genetic engineering – a recently developed technology that marks a quantum leap in our relationship to plants.
Our relationship to the potato began in the Andes Mountains of Peru. It was there, more than 8,000 years ago, that the plant was first domesticated, and more than 5,000 different varieties of potatoes are still grown there today. After the Spaniards conquered Peru in the 16th century, they took the potato back with them to Europe, where it helped to change the course of history. Here was a plant that could prosper in cool, rainy places with poor soils, such as Ireland. But unlike the Peruvians, the Irish grew mainly one single type of potato, the Lumper. The Irish potato fields, with their genetic uniformity, soon became vulnerable to biological pests. In the 1840s, when a virulent spore swept through the island nation, almost the entire potato crop was wiped out. The ensuing famine was so severe that it killed one out of every eight people in Ireland.
Says Pollan, "The Irish potato famine is the great cautionary tale of putting all your eggs in one basket, and the great cautionary tale about monocultures of all kinds. It's a parable about the importance of biodiversity, and it's a parable we forget at our peril." Yet this parable has already been forgotten in America, where consumer demand for perfectly uniform French fries has resulted in the planting of another monoculture potato crop – the Russet Burbank.
A great many of our Russet Burbanks are grown in Idaho, where the potato plants are watered by huge irrigation systems and sprayed regularly with fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The film contrasts this "industrial" method of agriculture with organic farming, which avoids chemicals and encourages genetic diversity. Though organic yields may be lower, organic farmers' costs are, too, because they save money by not using chemicals.
The Botany of Desire also examines the story of the genetically modified New Leaf potato: an attempt to kill pests with fewer toxins by exploiting advances in biotechnology. Introduced by the biotech giant Monsanto in 1995, the New Leaf contained a gene from a soil bacterium that had been inserted into the potato's DNA – a gene that helped to kill the dreaded Colorado potato beetle without pesticide sprays. But after rising public concern about the possible effects of genetically modified food, and publicity problems for restaurant chains like McDonald's, the New Leaf was taken off the market.
Are there viable choices for farmers who need to resist pests, other than spraying with pesticides or genetically modifying plants? Yes, argues Pollan. "If you are willing to abandon monoculture, there are other ways to do it." Organic farmers, who grow a wide assortment of potato varieties, are doing just that, finding consumers willing to forgo uniformity to gain variety, flavor and the appeal of a plant raised free from chemical pesticides.