Anyone who has read Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire (2001, Random House) is familiar with the stories he tells weaving the adaptation of the apple, tulip, potato and marijuana to man's own evolutional history. The question Pollan asks is, isn't it actually the other way around? "We don't give nearly enough credit to plants," Pollan says during the opening of the two hour PBS adaptation of his book, airing this Wednesday on Channel 7 from 7 - 9 p.m., "They've been working on us, they've been using us, for their own purposes."
While Pollan admits his statements are metaphorical, as plants don't really have conciousness or intention, he thought it would be interesting to to look at domesticated plants from the plant's point of view. He found that nature looked very different. "The Botany of Desire" was built on the premise that plants worked to gratify our desires and we, in turn, worked to bring them out of isolation and give them more room to grow. Pollan takes a closer look at the symbiotic relationship between humans and four plants: Apple, tulip, potato and marijuana and our desire for sweetness, beauty, control and a change of conciousness.
I was able to watch a preview of the program this weekend. The television special takes viewers on a high-def journey from the mountainous Andes to the floor of a frenetic flower auction house in the Netherlands to a research orchard in upstate New York to the unspecified location of a medical marijuana operation. It tours potato fields in Idaho, gardens in Amsterdam, a Kazakhstan forest and even peers inside the brain in a look at the extent humans will go to gratify our desires. At the same time it also examines how monoculture versus diversity is perilous to the fulfilment of those desires.
Pollan dispels the myth of Johnny Appleseed - a real man named John Chapman - who planted apples from seed along the Ohio River ahead of settlers moving out into the New World. While apples do not grow true from seed, many of those grown turned out to be bitter, not suitable for anything except making into cider, hard alcoholic cider, that is. When prohibition came along, many of those cider apple trees were destroyed. Only the sweet tasting apple succeeded in surviving and through clever advertising - touting eating apples for health reasons - a new market was born. But at the same time, the varieties of apples being grown were diminished drastically as the market was looking only for the sweetest, most durable and longest storing fruit.
The first wild tulips were probably found in Central Asia and travelled the silk road to Turkey and then into Europe. In Turkey, the flower dazzled an Ottoman Emperor and eventually brought down his rule because of the extravagent spending he lavished on his obsession. Centuries later a single tulip, the startling white and carmine red 'Semper Augustus', was the center of an obsession in the Netherlands that brought about "Tulipmania" and the loss of many personal fortunes. Today, the Dutch nation is once again on top of the tulip trade and growers are experimenting with breeding new varieties of tulips from seed. The TV show brings us to breeders fields and famous gardens, acres drenched in color. Pollan says, "Plants that can attract us with beauty, smell, color, shape, will dominate the landscape, industry, and get many copies of itself made and take over the world."
The program shows us that even a weed can get us to work for it with it's ability to produce mind-altering chemicals. The interesting thing about marijuana is that if it had not come onto the social scene in a big way in the 1960's, scientists might not have begun to study it so closely. Their research has unlocked discoveries about how our brain works and how the areas of our brain that control memory, movement, emotion and thinking works. The desire for marijuana has proven that people will go to extreme lengths to get and grow it. With 750,000 arrests a year for possesion, it equates to one-third of all crimes committed. In the meantime, growers are finding more creative ways to produce it, by hybridizing and growing it indoors.
And lastly, the program shows us how Andean farmers, descendents of the Incas, have been successfully growing a diversity of potatoes in the mountainous fields of South America for thousands of years. By picking the right tuber to grow based on altitude and exposure to sun, the farmers always ensure that they will have food to eat. In contrast, the Irish potato famine of 1845 is the best argument against monoculture. Potatoes took well to the hardscrabble farmlands and rainy climate of Ireland. But the Irish grew only one variety and when the potato blight fungus hit, it didn't take long to wipe out the food supply of millions of people, killing 1 in 8.
Somehow, that lesson has been forgotten. Today, farms in Idaho grow the Russet Burbank, a potato in high demand by the fast-food industry to produce a smooth looking, long french fry. They use a vast amount of water and are sprayed with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to successfully supply our desires. Monsanto experimented with a genetically-modified potato that was insect resistant but no one knew they were consuming it because there were no regulations regarding disclosure. Once word got out, and concern grew, the GMO plant was taken off the market and the Russet Burbank is again the only variety grown for the fast-food industry.
Pollan says, " Monoculture on the plate leads to monoculture on the land." That really seems to be the true lesson that Pollan is trying to teach in his book and in the program as well. It is a lesson that we should be encouraged to remember as we go into our gardens in the spring to grow the same varieties and plants year after year only to find that we now have leaf rollers, defoliators, cutworms, aphids and a myriad of other pests and diseases. It is the reason why we should be mindful of crop rotation and trying out new varieties and strains of our old favorites. And if we do find varieties that are more resistant to our garden pests, then we will be more successful in controlling them with organic means as well.
The TV adaptation of the novel The Botany of Desire is sumptuous to view, thought provoking and just plain interesting. It is of the high quality that we are accustomed to viewing on public television.
Gardeners, don't miss it.