The Botany of Desire. A Plant’s-Eye View of the World


Author: Pollan, Michael

Title:  The Botany of Desire. A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.

Genre:  Nonfiction; Nature Writing; Science Writing; History Writing

Publication Date: 2001

Number of pages: 354 (Large Print)

Geographical Setting: United States; Holland; Ireland

Time period: Contemporary; Historic  Series:  N/A

Plot Summary: In this engaging and thought-provoking collection of essays, Michael Pollan follows the stories of four plans-apple, tulip, marijuana and potato-and discusses how these plants satisfy human desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, and use humans for their survival. To explain this fluid relationship, the author combines his knowledge of science, history, culture, philosophy, psychology and gardening into an informative, highly readable and intimate micro-history of plants and humans.  Each chapter uses a unique character or an event to emphasize the nature of the relationship. For example, in the chapter on apples, Pollan explores the story of Dionysus-like Johnny Appleseed, who by planting apple seeds contributed to the apple’s diversity and the popularity of apple cider. In the following chapters, Pollan uses an example of the 17th century Holland’s obsession for “perfect” tulip, describes inadvertent results of “the war on drugs” on marijuana, and tells the story of a potato from the perspective of the Irish famine and the present-day drive for a genetically engineered “perfect” potato. The author’s view on the human desire to control and manipulate biodiversity is fairly clear-he is mostly against it-but Pollan avoids sounding preachy by using humorous anecdotes, multiple perspectives and an engaging prose.  The Desire of Botany is a great example of a witty, accessible, yet well-researched, micro-history of codependency between humans and plants.

Subject Headings: Human–Plans Relationships; Plants—Development, Co-Evolution, Men and Nature, Gardening, Micro-history, Apple, Tulip, Marijuana, Potatoes.

Appeal: engaging, accessible, engrossing, witty, reflective, conversational, historic details, descriptive, entertaining, thought-provoking, well-researched, candid, investigative, intriguing, quirky, persuasive.

3 Appeal Terms that Best Describe this Book: engaging, accessible, thought-provoking.

3 Relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors: 

1) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver: This book chronicles the year that Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved to a farm in Virginia and tried to live on home or locally-grown food. Similarly to The Botany of Desire, the book is a light-hearted part-memoir about a relationship between humans and plants.

2) Weed: in Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey. The author combines history, science and descriptions of his travels into a story of unholy weeds and how they gained their unflattering position in the world of plants.

3) The Earth Knows my Name: Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst.  A collection of stories of urban, suburban and rural gardens created by Native American and immigrants who wanted to preserve the connection with the land. The collection is a part microhistory, part  meditation on the relationship between food, land and culture.

3 Relevant Fiction Works and Authors:

1) Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel:  A love story about Tita de la Garza, a heart broken Mexican girl, who finds escape and meaning in her love of cooking. Both, The Botany of Desire and this book, describe the link between certain foods, feelings and desires and use bittersweet wit and engrossing tales to share a story of food and human emotions.

2) The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood:   A lyrical and darkly witty story of a young Toronto woman who finds herself unable to eat, and instead starts to identify with the foods and feel as if she was being consumed, instead. It’s a provocative and entertaining commentary on the consumer culture, gender, identity, and the role of food.

3) Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden by Reginald Arkell. This is a classic British novel that tells a comic life story of Bert Pinnegar, a gardener and a lover of plants. It’s filled with beautiful descriptions of flowers, shrubs and trees but also with thoughtful and philosophical musings on human existence and the social history of England at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Megan R.


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