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Michael Pollans's The Botany of Desire:

Apples and Tulips and Marijuana, Oh My!

With a name like Michael Pollan (say it, don't spell it), this author's cred as a garden writer should not be challenged. His previous book, Second Nature, chronicled the perils and pleasures of the home garden. Now, the New York Times Sunday Magazine writer investigates humanity's dependence on four particular plants: the apple (representing our desire for sweetness); the tulip (beauty); marijuana (intoxication) and the potato (control). Pollan focuses on these particular strains because he feels "they have great stories to tell." Think of why, out of all the residents of the animal world, we've become so attached to dogs and cats, and then apply that question to plants. Why the high marks on tulips and not daisies? Why the fervor for marijuana and not clover?

Pollan relays the farmer's past and contemporary relationships with each plant. A story about the apple would be worthless without dredging up the bio-pic on Johnny (Appleseed) Chapman and the real reason why he brought all those shiny reds to Ohio - so that every township could get tanked on cider. His travels introduce him to a man intent on championing a heritiage center for Appleseed and bring him to a grove in Geneva, New Yor,k where you'll find the world's largest collection of apple trees.

When discussing the tulip, Pollan shows how an expatriate from Turkey won European favor by shifting its use from a somewhat raunchy food staple (Germans liked to boil and sugar the bulbs) to its role as a necessary part of every Dutch table. Part of the reason for the tulip's success, Pollan writes, was that it arrived in Holland without a Christian connotation, and its lack of scent appealed to the needs of the left brain.

Marijuana appears in the book because, according to Pollan, it has managed to woo the entire brain. Pollan examines the legal issues surrounding marijuana and America's love/hate relationship with it, estimating that 20 million Americans are recreational users -- yet citizens subsidize a government intent on sending a good percentage of them away. On a personal note, Pollan recites a hilarious adventure in the 1980s when he tried to grow his own buds. He relays the experience of going to Amsterdam where people smoke freely at coffeeshops and his visit to a modern pot laboratory where growers can shock plants to flower in two months. Pollan also talks with scientists about why they think marijuana survives and why we like to be intoxicated by its presence.

His last botanical darling is the potato. Pollan reveals that the Europeans first rejected the potato because it was a member of the nightshade family and was thought to cause leprosy -- and it came from America. With these three strikes against it, only the Irish, then considered European miscreants, were suitable consumers of the tuber. The Irish soon found that the combination of protein and vitamins B & C made the potatoa worthy, versatile staple. Their dependence grew so strong, that when a fungus eradicated their crops in the late 1840s, it also decimated the human population by millions. Pollan shows how we have punished the potato with our own genetic engineering techniques: A modern potato like The New Leaf variety has the ability to kill beetles with toxins from its own leaf. His visit to three potato farms in Idaho and the layers of pesticides he sees dusted on crops will give anyone pause before they make that next french fry order at McDonalds.

Pollan's style is thorough and charming and his is not an alarmist book; rather, it's about a co-dependence on certain botanical items that many of us never realized we had.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan
Random House, 2001
$24.95 (Hardcover, 271 pages)
>> Buy It Now: The Botany of Desire

Lisa Ryers is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.