Botany of Desire

I always think the universe does a neat trick when a person's name predicts the vocation he or she takes as an adult. For example, in my town we have a public garden named for its benefactor, Mrs. Park. And here we have a book and a fascinating two hours of bee-heavy television inspired by a man named Mr. Pollan. (Not "pollen," no, but in a game with no rules, homophones count.)

Michael Pollan does a neat trick in his book, "Botany of Desire" -- he writes a history of plant evolution from the point of view of the apples, tulips, cannabis plants, and potatoes that spread their seeds around the globe on the backs of an adaptable group of animals who never seem to stay put: human beings.

Humans turned out to be avid gardeners, easily made dependent on plants that look pretty, get us high, and taste great. Do you enjoy a good french fry? Join the party. Potatoes are an incredibly diverse and nutritious food that grow well in poor soil, and they were a godsend to places like nineteenth-century Ireland where the farming was a tremendous challenge. Unfortunately, Irish farmers all planted the same type of potato, known as "the lumper." No other strains existed in the entire island, so when disease struck the lumper they had nothing to fall back on, and one eighth of the population starved to death in the great potato famine.

You think, Oh, that couldn't happen today, we have so many ways to fight plant disease! And it's true, we have everything from ladybugs to Agent Orange to combat bugs and blight. But like the nineteenth-century Irish, we've also fallen in love with one type of potato -- the Russet Bermuda. It's the one responsible for all those long, slender fries you see poking out of McDonald's boxes in salty little bouquets. They're delicious, and today our farmers are going to unnatural lengths to (a) keep restaurants stocked with uniform potatoes, which means (b) preventing the Russet Bermudas from mutating as they naturally would over time to adapt themselves to the constant influx of new bugs, germs, and weeds, which means farmers have to (c) manage the potatoes' environment with pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic engineering. It's like having plastic surgery every month to try to keep yourself looking nineteen years old, the way farm are trying to stay viable by artificially propping up consumer demand for a five-inch french fry.

Apples, on the other hand, have had better luck breaking out of the monoculture trap. Apples were able to find their way out of central Asia and around the globe due to our hard-wired love of sweetness. In telling the true story of Johhny Appleseed, we learn that not only was the man a kind of wonderful kook, but that when you plant an apple seed, the tree that grows from it may not resemble the fruit it came from at all. That's because apple seeds carry the genes for all types of apples inside them, and the majority of apple trees grown from seeds produce fruit that's not a lot of fun to eat. It's quite bitter, actually (sweet apple trees are produced by grafting plants together), but it's good for one thing: cider. And when you make a lot of cider and store it in barrels to drink later, it becomes hard cider. So what Johnny Appleseed actually brought to American was the chance to get good and drunk. And for a culture that was terrified of water (not having a reliable system for purifying it), *everybody* drank cider.

I wonder why they don't tell you that in fifth grade.

There's a good deal more to this great two hours of television, the other half of which is devoted to the cultivation of broken tulips and promoting sexual frustration in cannabis plants.

(On a personal note I'd just like to add that it was someone's good idea to choose a woman named Eden to post about a show partially devoted to apple trees. I carry one with me wherever I go.)




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Hi Eden! Cool review -- can't wait to read the book. But I have to ask; Isn't the potato in question a Russet Burbank? Having once lived in Bermuda I think having the country's most popular potato named after the islands would be pretty darn cool but I thought the potato was named for the horticulturalist.

We caught this on PBS last night. I missed the first thirty or so minutes, but my husband found it in the guide so we could record it. I WAS FASCINATED! But I work in science. One of the things that I really like about Michael Pollan's work is how well he backs everything up scientifically. Both sides of the story.

I want to try one of those black Peruvian potatoes!


Your first paragraph caught my attention. What vocation do you think "Chance" works for?

Anne Chance

Joe Vachon - this wonderful program IS available on DVD, I purchased it myself so I could loan it to everyone I know!

A couple of names for it:

"... See also nominative determinism. (thx robert) ... Herb Caen (historical SF Chronicle columnist) called these "namephreaks". ...

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