Botany Desire Essays

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire tells the story of four familiar plants—the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato—and the human desires that link their destinies to our own. Its broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural worlds, as illustrated through the cultural history of plant domestication and gardening. Pollan writes in his introduction that his book is “as much about the human desires that connect us to those plants as it is about the plants themselves.” These human desires, he asserts, “form a part of natural history the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew.” His book is both a social history of plant domestication and a natural history of the human desires these plants evolved to gratify. The question Pollan raises is: Who is really in control? Are humans selecting humanly desirable plant traits, or are these plants “tricking” humans into helping them propagate by enticing them with sweetness, beauty, intoxication, or the illusion of control?

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan inverts the conventional, human-centered view of the world and looks at plant domestication from the plants’ point of view. What is in it for them? Coevolution involves a complex process of adaptation within a mutually beneficial relationship in which each organism receives something in return for a service rendered. The most familiar example of coevolution is the honeybee and the flower, in which the honeybee receives nutritious pollen and nectar in return for cross-pollinating the flower. Human domestication of plants is a special case of coevolution in which humans have selected and bred certain plants for their nutritional, medicinal, or aesthetic value, and plants have responded by expressing, within the range of their genetic variability, new and humanly desirable traits. Plant domestication could not have occurred, however, without a prior innovation in plant evolution, the emergence of angiosperms, or flowering plants, about one hundred million years ago. Instead of scattering their pollen to the wind or using asexual cloning, these plants evolved showy flowers and seeds to disseminate their genes. With flowering plants, Pollan argues, beauty entered the world and made it possible for plants to attract pollinators and seed dispersers on the basis of color, flower appearance, and the food value of their fruit.

About ten thousand years ago, a second innovation in plant evolution appeared known as the agricultural revolution. A group of edible grasses responded to human selection by evolving larger and more nutritious kernels, which in turn encouraged humans to clear land and plant more of them. The concentrated food value from these annual grasses—wheat, rye, barley, oats, and corn—made it possible for them to be harvested, stored, ground, and used as a reliable food source, transforming humans from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. These grains, in turn, found a reliable means of propagation. The first cities and ancient human civilizations emerged in part because of this dependable annual food surplus, which freed a part of the population to become scribes, priests, warriors, or artists. Charles Darwin referred to the sexual revolution among plants that made this possible as “an abominable mystery,” acknowledging that without flowering plants, human civilization would not be here. When Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species (1859), he began his first chapter with a discussion of the history of “artificial selection,” or plant and animal breeding, showing how in selecting from among the wealth of genetic traits to be passed down to future generations, humans are playing a comparable role to natural selection in nature. Perhaps domesticated plants and animals, Pollan muses, are nature’s “success stories.” Humans and nature are not so very different after all.

Pollan chooses four common domesticated plants as illustrations for his intriguing thesis about plant domestication being a reciprocal relationship—the apple tree, the tulip bulb, the marijuana plant, and the potato tuber—and examines the complex cultural history of each. It may be that by responding to the human desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, or, in the case of the genetically modified potato, power over nature, plants trick humans into helping to disseminate their genes. The story of plant domestication is a long, complex, reciprocal relationship. Domesticated plants have responded to artificial selection with a variety of new traits, but from a botanical perspective, there...

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Botany, Domestication, and the Plant's Point of View

  • Botanicus is the Missouri Botanical Garden Library's freely accessible portal to historic botanical literature, featuring searchable, digital copies of botanical illustrations and texts.

  • The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan (New York: Random House, 2001).

  • Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated, by Steve Jones (New York: Random House, 1991).

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

  • The National Agricultural Library's Special Collections include digitized images from rare books, nursery and seed trade catalogs, photographs, and posters.

  • Plant Biographies is an encyclopedia of plants from Xerxes to the present day. It covers plants' interrelationship with man and the planet and their usage, history, influence and unusual properties.

  • Plants, Man, and Life, by Edgar Anderson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952), is a classic on the origins of agriculture.


  • Apples, by Roger Yepsen (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), contains illustrations of 90 North American apple varieties, each accompanied by a short history and flavor profile.

  • Apples: The Story of the Fruit of Temptation, by Frank Browning (New York: North Point Press, 1998) is a tome on apple orchards, apple farming, apples in art and history, and the origin of apples in Central Asia.

  • "Johnny Appleseed. A Pioneer Hero". This famous article about frontier nurseryman John Chapman was published in Harper's Magazine in November 1871.

  • Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth, by Robert Price (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954), is a biography of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed.

  • The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is a series of luminous paintings of apples and other fruits. Produced by U.S.D.A. researchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these very detailed paintings document regional fruit varieties before the widespread adaptation of scientific photography.

  • "Wild Apples: The History of the Apple Tree," Henry David Thoreau's famous essay on wild apples, is from The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1803).


  • Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007), covers the botany, history, and commerce of flowers.

  • Levni and the Surname: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Festival, by Esin Atil (Istanbul, Turkey: Kocbank, 1999), is about the Surname-I Vehbi, the illustrated chronicle of an opulent festival for Sultan Ahmed III during the height of the Tulip Era.

  • Situated in a convent in the Dutch city of Delft, The Museum Het Prinsenhof offers a glimpse into 17th-century Dutch life during the time of tulipomania. The collection includes paintings, a portrait of Semper Augustus tulips by Brandemandus, and chairs covered in tulip-motif tapestry.

  • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, by Matt Ridley (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), is a detailed volume on beauty and the evolution of sexual reproduction.

  • Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, by Nancy Etcoff (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

  • The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad, by Anna Pavord (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), is a definitive book on tulips and the Dutch tulipomania.

  • Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, by Mike Dash (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).

  • Wageningen Tulip Portal is the online home of Wageningen University Library's collection of art and historical documents related to tulipomania. The site is also a gateway to the latest scientific research on tulips from Wageningen University Research Center.


  • Aboca Museum's Bibliotheca Antiqua is a rich collection of rare and historic herbal and botanical books, including De Historia stirpium by Leonhart Fuchs, the 16th-century German scientist who is considered to be one of the founders of the science of botany. This book contains an early botanical illustration of cannabis.

  • A Brief History of Drugs, by Antonio Escohotado (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1996) tells the story of humans' historical relationships with mind-altering substances.

  • Cannabis: A History, by Martin Booth (New York: Picador, 2003).

  • The International Cannabinoid Research Society is a scientific association for researchers dedicated to the study of cannabinoids.

  • The Medicinal Uses of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, edited by Geoffrey Guy, Brian Whittle and Philip Robson (London: Pharmaceutical Press, 2004).

  • On Drugs, by David Lenson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

  • Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

  • Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence, by Mitch Earleywine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).


  • The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is the largest biotechnology advocacy organization in the world. BIO promotes agricultural, industrial, and environmental biotechnologies on behalf of its members, which include startups, universities, and multinational corporations.

  • Genes, Crops, and the Environment, by John Holden et al. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  • The Gift of Good Land, by Wendell Berry (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981).

  • The Guaman Poma websiteoffers a digital, translated facsimile of El Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, an illustrated manuscript created in 1615 by indigenous Peruvian Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. This is the only surviving illustrated text depicting pre-conquest Incan life. Several illustrations feature agricultural scenes and potato cultivation. The site was created by the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

  • The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe Salaman (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949), is a study of every aspect of the potato.
    A study of every aspect of the potato.

  • Irish Rural Interiors in Art, by Claudia Kinmonth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), reproduces art depicting Irish home life in the 18th through early 20th centuries. Some paintings date from the time of the great famine, and many highlight the role potatoes played in the Irish diet.

  • The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology was created to bring together differing viewpoints to examine agricultural biotechnology and related policy. Before shutting down in 2007, the initiative published reports, held workshops, and took polls, all of which are publicly accessible in its online archive.

  • "Playing God in the Garden"is Michael Pollan's original article on the new leaf potato (The New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998).

  • The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, by Larry Zuckerman (New York: North Point Press, 1998), describes how the potato fed growing populations and fueled development in Western Europe and the United States.

  • Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996).

  • Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). In this book, Ronald, a UC Davis geneticist, and Adamchak, an organic farmer, argue that genetic engineering and organic farming can be used together. The book includes a very readable overview of how genetic engineering works.

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a science advocacy group focused on environmental issues. The UCS has produced materials about genetic engineering, food, and agriculture.

  • The U.S. Regulatory Agencies Unified Biotechnology website provides an overview of how biotechnology is regulated and which agencies are involved. The site features a database that enables users to search all completed regulatory reviews for genetically engineered crops intended for human or animal consumption.


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