Book Review: The Botany of Desire

“We don’t give nearly enough credit to plants.
They’ve been working on us ”“ they’ve been using us ”“ for their own purposes.”
~ Michael Pollan

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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The Botany of Desire was my trans-Pacific flight companion in good measure of the 5 hours it takes to fly from Hawai‘i to Portland: I read half of the book on the way there, covering Pollan’s first two stories of the botany of desire (the apple/sweetness and tulip/beauty), and then finished it on the trip back home (learning of his connection for marijuana/intoxication and the potato/control in the last two stories). Pollan’s coevolutionary premise, that plants have had a much greater influence and effect on us than we realize, especially given their need for rooting and apparent immobility, was fascinating to me, and the book did not disappoint — I loved it.

Synopsis from the publisher:

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

This is a “Made you think!” kind of book, and Pollan stokes the reader’s curiosity very skillfully. I was intrigued with learning more of what botany can teach us, about plants yes, but mostly about ourselves in the coevolutionary connection Pollan explains so well, for there is simply no denying it. He writes well, and he’s woven good stories, all boosted with significant personal research, including that within his own garden, a wonderful personal touch. I wished the book was longer, to tell us of even more stories — the botanical connections certainly abound here at my own home in the Hawaiian tropics, and I am quite sure that the four desires he’s covered simply begin to peel back our complex layers.

Pollan was brilliant I think, in starting his book with the apple and largely untold story of Johnny Appleseed, for we’ve all heard of the legend without knowing the depth of the story, and it’s so easy to take the apple for granted. The fruit is not as common as we think!

We humans are so self-absorbed, and it’s quite impossible to read this book without changing the way one thinks of plants, and without continuing to wonder just how much more they have affected us. What Pollan has done, is awake the reader’s inquisitiveness and respect for botany in very successful way — we can continue our study on our own to a certain degree, the scientific calling unnecessary, and most notably with our own relationship to nature.

I would also recommend this book to someone wanting to stretch in their reading with more non-fiction, for it’s a compelling choice, entertaining, easy to read, and quite in a league of its own.

PBS has produced a two-hour documentary with Pollan as well; no surprise to me, for their partnership seems a perfect fit. Here is the Preview Trailer (if you’re reading via RSS, you may need to click directly into the blog to see this):

Watch the full episode. See more Botany of Desire.

More PBS Links:

  1. About the Program
  2. The Apple: Our desire of Sweetness
  3. The Tulip: Our desire of Beauty
  4. Cannabis: Our desire of Intoxication
  5. The Potato: Our desire of Control

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Previous review: Do the Work by Steven Pressfield for The Domino Project


  1. says

    That sounds like a totally fascinating book Rosa – definitely going on the list :-)

    Watching people take photos of tulips in the first clip made me think of how the flowers and plants get us to take photos of them – I often have the feeling that they love to be admired and adored, that somehow they feed off our attention. Maybe I’ll learn from this book that they do!

    • Rosa Say says

      Of all the stories in the book Joanna, the segment on tulips and beauty was the one that got me to wonder if plants might have some emotion of their own; a form of emotion at least, that we will never be able to understand in our human limits. As for photography, I think we do pay them back for satisfying our desire for beauty with our photos; we extend their short lives so that they continue to bloom in another very timeless way.

      Knowing of a few of the other books you have been drawn to, I would heartily recommend this one for you!