The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

May 19, 2020

★★★

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I wish I learned more about gardening and botany in school. I recently moved to a new apartment with a balcony and while filling it with herbs and vegetables, I realized that I know next to nothing about taking care of plants. I have vague memories of growing plants with my class in elementary school, but I was too young for it to stick.

The Botany of Desire is not a book about how to take care of plants, but it is a source of inspiration for starting your own garden. Pollan tells the history of four plants: the apple tree, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. It's written in a relaxed way, blending Pollan's experiences as a gardener with historical narrative. This is not a book for someone in a hurry, and I have to admit, I glazed over a few passages that read like pure trivia.

However, Pollan’s goal is to change the way we think about plants and agriculture, and he accomplishes that. One of my favorite passages compares an organic potato farmer with a farmer using genetically modified potatoes. Pollan asks how the organic farmer prevents net necrosis, which devastates many GMO farms.

I was disarmed by the simplicity of his answer. "That's only really a problem with Russet Burbanks," he explained. "So I plant other kinds."

We've created our own set of problems through massive monoculture farming, and are now trying to engineer our way out with pesticides and GMOs. Unfortunately, we can't be certain we're not damaging our health or the environment.

That paradigm will always construe the problem in [a non-organic farmer's] field as a Colorado beetle problem, rather than what it is: a problem of potato monoculture.

If anything, The Botany of Desire has motivated me to be thoughtful about where the produce I buy comes from. It's pushed me to prioritize food that's locally grown and organic. And it's helped me find joy in expanding the garden in my backyard.