Botany of Desire

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Do we control our own destiny?  Or well — do plants?  If you didn’t catch last night’s PBS special, “Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan, you don’t know the answer to this question!  He proposes an interesting philosophy…that plants control us similar to how they influence bees by giving us what we desire most. 

Pollan uses 4 very good examples:  Apples (sweetness), Tulips (beauty), Cannabis (intoxification), and Potatoes (control).  Each originated in far away regions, but ended up in almost every part of the country and world.  Why?  Well, because they developed traits that influenced us to carry them to new habitats which not only increased their chances for survival, but convinced humans to capitalize the plants’ traits in various ways. 

As we know, plants are not mobile unless an animal eats its fruit and carries its seeds away (and there’s wind but that can only travel so far).  Yet if that fruit is tastier and sweeter, and more colorful, chances of man or beast to select it are greater.  Michael Pollan reminds us that we work for plants, just like bees do.  We are the plants’ employees so to speak.  He focuses this great program on the plant’s point of view.

This t.v. show made me recall a book I read during my studies at UCONN titled, “Botany for Gardeners” by Brian Capon.  It is a great introduction and guide to plant science written from the plant’s point of view as well.  It is easy to read and if you want to learn the inner functions of a plant’s growth, give it a try.   

In Capon’s prologue, he writes, “In truth, flowers are short branches bearing specially adapted leaves, and reproduction is the sole function for which flowers evolved; the pleasure they bring to mankind is coincidental.”  Let’s pause, coincidental

Pollan reminds us that plants survive from one generation to the next because “we” pay attention and desire the rewards plants advertise and provide.  We not only transport them, we help plants to maximize their strongest points, so much in fact, the plants end up controlling us – and determining our destiny.  (Note:  This kind of ties into our problem with invasives.  In my opinion, they can be such a problem, the invasives control us in ways we may not notice.  Remember my prior post about that huge equipment tearing out a vine?). 

Back to Pollan…He stated, “We are in the web of nature, not outside of it.”  And if you are a plant person, it is fun to listen to his descriptions on the 4 key plants he uses to entertain these philosophies. For apples it is sweetness, tulips – beauty, cannabis – intoxification, and potatoes – control.  Apples, as he points out, originated in Central Asia, along with the first wild tulips.  Both made their way to far way places because of the plant’s ability to con us into taking them there.  He tells the story of a fellow named Chapman who would travel to plant apple trees from seeds before settlers arrived and then sell his trees.  But apples don’t come true from seed (they must be grafted).  However, since Chapman spread these new seeds from region to region, which weren’t sweet results initially, the apple expanded its territory and varieties.  The bitter apples were used to make hard cider at the time.  This is the story of Johnny Appleseed!  But it continues on how it lead to humans being obessessed with cider, and then lead to focusing on sweet apples and growing the trees which produce them.

Pollan also shares the story of Cannabis, first discovered in India and China.  Before modern times when drugs like aspirin were available, cannabis was used for medicinal purposes to help relieve pain.  Eventually man crossed the tall growing variety (C. sativa) with a shorter, faster, stronger growing variety (C. Indica) because man wanted to grow it under cover once it was made illegal (tall couldn’t be grown outside anymore), and to induce a better product.  It was nutured, transformed, and turned into a rich plant. 

But what is really interesting is when Pollan goes into how the molecule in Cannabis (THC) attaches to receptors in the brain.  These specific receptors are the exact matching key hole to the THC so to speak.  Man is responsible for making the plant more powerful, yet the plant had the ability to provide a window into how areas of the brain operates.  This window lead scientists to study how to manipulate these particular receptors to help control things like tragic memories which haunt certain people. 

I’m not saying I agree with the use of Cannabis mind you, but it sure was interesting to here how Pollan demonstrates, metaphorically speaking, how plants find a way to keep us in their clutches so they can keep on growing, surviving, and out-thriving other plants. 

He showcased two cannabis growers who are so obsessed with perfecting cannabis, they have elaborate controls for light, air conditioning, and hand coddle the buds to induce more resin by separating all the female plants from males.  They truly believe without their presence, the plants get angry and don’t perform as well.  Are they smoking too much (LOL) or is it true?  These two growers are not only controlled by this plant, they are practically slaves to it. 

Yet I know I’m a slave to some of my plants, especially those I design in containers, so I do agree with this whole plant controlling my destiny thing.  When I don’t pay attention to them, I swear they just get a little less beautiful.  Well, if you think you would find this program as interesting as I did, check out www.pbs.org for more.

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