Do We Use Plants, Or Do They Use Us?


Gardener, writer and now UC journalism professor Michael Pollan in  his provocative 2001 book, “The Botany of Desire” posited that just as bumblebees and flowers have evolved together, so have  humans and plants, each  using the other to get something they need. And now “The Botany of Desire” has come to PBS in a two-hour television documentary gorgeously produced by Michael Schwarz.

In four  half-hour  segments the program profiles  the same plants Pollan  investigates  in his book: the apple, the  tulip, cannabis  and the potato. With fascinating interviews and historical anecdotes we are shown how we have changed  plants, but also how plants have  changed human history.

We  see how the apple and  that odd  character who came to be  known as Johnny Appleseed influenced settlement in America.  We see how 17th century Holland’s  infatuation  with tulips led to a mad economic bubble and subsequent  collapse. We see how a  19th century potato blight led to the starvation of 1/8th of Ireland’s population and the emigration of millions more. And we see our America caught in a seemingly  endless argument  over  how marijuana should be viewed. Does if relieve pain and open consciousness  or will it’s use cause our country to decline?

In there is also a cautionary tale. While the ancestors of the Incas in Peru cultivate between four and five thousand varieties of potato, the Irish grew just one. And although recently a greater variety of potatoes are coming to market in the U.S., potato production here overwhelmingly favors a single variety:  the Russet Burbank.  Why? Because that’s the variety McDonald’s demands for it’s french fries.  Need I add that  this near monoculture comes with a heavy dose of herbicides and pesticides?  And while this documentary’s aim isn’t a call to arms, it surely will leave viewers with a new respect for plants and their importance in our lives.

PBS first aired this documentary on many stations on October 28th, but check your local listings to see when your station will air this exceptional show.

–Gary Alinder

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