Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

The Botany of Desire : A Plant’s eye View of the World by Michael Pollan 

Mike joyfully declares “Plants are Nature’s alchemists”. How true? They create a wide array of things. From sweet, nurturing and delicious to downright poison that could kill us. He starts with a paradigm shifting observation that, plants are remaking us as much as we are remaking them. He wonders, “Did I choose to plant potato or potato made me to do it?”Mike identifies four basic desires of humans, mapped to four plants which are taken as examples.
Desire: Sweetness. Plant: Apple.
Desire: Beauty Plant: Tulip.
Desire: Intoxication Plant: Marijuana
Desire: Control Plant: Potato
The examples and stories were as compelling as the ”The Napoleon Buttons”.
Now, some interesting stories that got my attention ….

I was surprised to find the Gene gun is not a metaphor, but a 0.22 shell used to fire stainless steel projectiles dipped in a DNA solution at a stem or a leaf of the target plant. If all goes well, some of the DNA would pierce the wall of the some of the cell’s nuclei and elbow its way in to double helix – a bully breaking in to line dance! If the new DNA happens to land at the right place, and no one yet knows what or where that place is, the plant grown from that cell will express the new gene. Wow, what a game of randomness!.

Brain itself has its own endogenous cannobinoid. It was discovered by Mecholam and Howlett. They have named it as “Anandamide” from the Sanskrit word for inner bliss. Mike foresees a clear case of Nobel Prize for this duo soon since it has opened great deal of avenues for our understanding of the brain. It would pave way for understanding the bio-chemistry of emotions.

Tulip according to Mike is nature’s eye-candy. (Psychiatrists even regard patient’s indifference to flowers is a clear sign of depression!). Tulip had its heyday during 1660-85 in Holland so much so, it can be called as tulip-mania. Turkey also had its share of whim, where sometimes tulip was paid in gold. In this context, instead of relying on wind and water alone to move gene around, a plant could enlist help from the animal by striking co-evolutionary deal: Nutrition in exchange for transportation. With advent of flowers there are more interdependency, more communication and more experimentation – a novel way to look at flowers!

Mike’s tracing how apple grew in many parts of the world along with history of Chapman is fascinating who systematically moved from one land to another land, plants apple trees, grow them for certain time and sell it for a handsome returns – only to move to next venture. Most of the time, care taking was done by the locals. It appears, in every era, there are some small set folks who really set out and make a difference, be it apple planting or telecom or search engine. The history of apple – I mean the fruit, is really good one, many chancy events have made it what it is now.

Donald Norman, lamented that, now a days, “It is important to be clever than correct. It is important to be profound than practical”. After reading this book, my view of the plants is…. “They are Profound, Practical, Clever and Correct”. Jai Ho to Plant’s kingdom!
Thanks for reading this far.
Regards, madhu

PS: You can also have a look @


பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...


It seems to be another interesting book to read (since you also made comparison with Napolean's Buttons, which I am reading these days). Anandamide info is fascinating and so are the words of wisdom by Donald Norman. The association of human desire to type plant is also new to me. Thanks for sharing the info.


Nimmy said...

Fascinating, to say the least! Reading JuJubax is bound to leave me with empty pockets at this rate....for the impulse is to rush to the book-shop and ask for the book! :-)

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Interesting perspective.. I have never had much interest in gardening all my life, but of late, I seem to be developing an interest towards it, and with a few pots in my balcony, I am trying to get a feel for it. It is quite fascinating to watch them grow, and soon you seem to develop an affection towards them, much like pets. As the author says, not sure what the plants are doing, may be I am being manipulated by them.. :)
Will read the book when I get a chance..
Best Regards,
N.R. Ramesh.

jupieee said...

Your choice of diverse reading subjects continues to fascinate me. Very interesting post too !! Looks like I've found the perfect gift for my garden-mad dad !! Would it be too much to ask if you could recommend any good (anecdotal would be better, not looking for serious stuff) books on stock markets?

Keep penning Madhu-san !


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hello jupieee (Ramki):
Thanks for the feedback.
1. Indeed it was good read.
2. As to stock market, I have read a few books on "choas" where they allude about it. But, whatever I heard from my friends circle, who read and know lots about stock are the two picks:
1: Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis
2: Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco
both are specific and story telling styles. Personally, I have not read them (disclaimer!) but when some of my friends tell some section of it, I am including in "to-be-read-eventually" list!

Mohanakrishnan said...


Nice summary of the book. In fact I think I should provide a link to this from my blog so that people get a better idea of what the book is all about. :-)

The author has discussed the indifference of Africans to flowers. I wish he had studied the Asian obsession of flowers as well. We don't have one flower that dominates our imagination, but flowers so part of everyday life.


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Mike in another article while advocating natural food said like this:
"If it is made by the plant, eat it.
If is made from the plant, skip it".
- Liked the message as well as the word play


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hi Mohan:
Albeit late here is the link I am providing !