The Botany of Desire

By Michael Pollan,

Book cover of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Book description

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act…

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Why read it?

7 authors picked The Botany of Desire as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Another author of wide-ranging intellect, Pollan takes us through the history of the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato from the viewpoint of the plants. The chapters on the apple and the tulip are my favorites. Pollan has me looking at my favorite flowers in new ways – rose and peony, in his view, are Dionysian flowers, “deeply sensual” while the tulip is Apollonian, all clarity and order. But beauty, as defined by the Greeks, is when “Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance,” thus the most beautiful flowers are “the ones that partake of their opposing…

From Ngoc's list on why everyone loves gardening.

This is number one on my list. Exceptional in every sense, from the almost poetic language used to describe plant-human interactions to the ability to put a specific plant species (from apples to potatoes) in historical context. It is transformative. A plants-eye view of humans and their botanical favorites.

Pollan sets out to explore the nature of four very human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—through a quartet of plants that satisfy those very needs: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. What he gently imparts to his readers during the course of these investigations is that plants can muster a lot more resources, intelligence, and agency than most people ever imagined. 

Michael Pollan has a gift for engaging and thought-provoking writing, both easy to follow and leading the reader to unconventional conclusions. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan is at his best as an author, who is rediscovering human emotions through plants. I love the part on our craving for the sweet, where Pollan follows the winding paths of apple seeds and apple trees. Along the way, we come across a wealth of unexpected insights, from the fact that, grown from seeds, apples revert to the “wild,” undomesticated varieties to how they are connected to the Silk Road. Overall, the…

From Michael's list on plants and philosophy.

I love the way Michael Pollen makes us take the plant’s point of view, reminding us of how often we are coaxed to grow, eat, admire, and revere things that we “think” we discovered ourselves.  

I also love that Johnny Appleseed and Luther Burbank grew up as near neighbors, just a few years apart. Inland Massachusetts as an agricultural hotbed—who knew?

Why would roses look beautiful to humans? Why would certain herbs create hallucinations in the human brain? Michael Pollan follows the deep back story of four species of desirable plants to explore many questions we take for granted about the world around us. This book is an example of the way great science writing can answer questions we didn’t even think to ask. 

From Faye's list on the deep history of the universe.

Pollan is one of those luminously intelligent people who create the illusion that writing is effortless and fun, even while delivering great jolts of new insight about the natural world. Taking four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—he shows how people have cultivated and transformed them through the centuries, how they shape our agriculture and consumption patterns, and how we should assess the good and bad sides of genetic engineering.

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