The Botany of Desire (Young Readers Edition): Our Surprising Relationship with Plants

The Botany of Desire (Young Readers Edition): Our Surprising Relationship with Plants

by Michael Pollan
The Botany of Desire (Young Readers Edition): Our Surprising Relationship with Plants

The Botany of Desire (Young Readers Edition): Our Surprising Relationship with Plants

by Michael Pollan


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By the bestselling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, this is Michael Pollan's ingenious companion book about the surprising and close relationship between people and plants.

In this entertaining young readers edition of the environmental studies classic, Michael Pollan demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a reciprocal relationship. He links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, energy, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, coffee, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also helped them to thrive.

The Botany of Desire is perfect for STEM-focused young readers who want to learn more about:
  • human history, biology, and environmentalism
  • climate change and its impact on our relationship with plants
  • gardening and the human-plant relationship

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593531549
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 05/14/2024
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,049,376
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

About The Author
For more than thirty years, Michael Pollan has been writing about the places where the human and natural worlds intersect. In addition to magazine and newspaper writing, including regular contributions to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of nine books, seven of which have been New York Times bestsellers. He has received numerous awards, including two James Beard Awards, the John Burroughs Prize, the U.S. Humane Society’s Genesis Award, and the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace. In 2010 he was chosen by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Michael Pollan grew up on Long Island, New York, was educated at Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University, and teaches journalism and nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley and Harvard. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer.


San Francisco Bay Area, California

Date of Birth:

February 6, 1955

Place of Birth:

Long Island, New York


Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University

Read an Excerpt


Every now and then an idea comes along that changes everything—or at least, everything about how you look at the world. For me, it is the idea at the heart of this book, an idea that is about to infect you.

One of the weirdest things about being human is our so-called relationship to nature. The weirdness is embedded in that very phrase: To have “a relationship to nature” implies that we somehow stand outside it, and from that mythical position “relate” to it. Yet we humans are animals who evolved just like every other species. We are fully a part of nature, even if we seldom feel that way. 

Maybe it’s our arrogance, the belief that we are somehow special and therefore above it all. We feel powerful in nature, for better and worse. We manipulate other species in all sorts of ways, and have altered the landscape and earth’s ecosystem so dramatically that we have caused a new geologic era called The Anthropocene.

I suppose it’s nice to feel special and powerful, but it leads to all sorts of problems—including the environmental crisis we now find ourselves in. I don’t believe we can begin to resolve this crisis until we completely rethink our place in nature. That means learning to see ourselves as one creature among many, and regarding other creatures not as unfeeling objects for us to exploit, but as fellow beings with their own interests, intelligence, and perspectives that are deserving of our respect. 

This is the idea at the heart of this book, which I think of as offering a plant’s-eye view of the world. One of our greatest blessings as humans is our imagination, which allows us to put ourselves in the shoes (or roots) of other creatures, the better to see the world from their perspectives. That’s what you will learn to do as you read this book—see how, far from being the passive objects of our attentions, plants are busy with their own agendas. And for many of them, especially the ones we arrogantly call “domesticated,” that means getting animals like us to do things for them they can’t do for themselves: spread their genes around the world, clear land and create new habitat for them, and then care for them. The question of who’s really in charge here is a live one, and the answer will surprise you.

When we begin to see the world, and ourselves, from the plant’s point of view, everything changes. We gain new respect for the ingenuity of plants, and begin to develop a more realistic (and humbler) sense of our own role and powers in nature. You will come to see that these other creatures have evolved the ability to use us even as we use them—and that the same goes for domestic animals and even the trillions of bacteria with whom you share your body. All of us participate in this great, big, beautiful dance of symbiosis, partners in co-evolution, changing and being changed, mutually dependent. The sooner we recognize that we’re all in this together, the sooner we can begin to repair the damage our mistaken ideas of specialness and power have created. There’s no time to lose.              

Introduction: The Bees and Me

The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden—while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed can be relaxing. It’s not hard, and it leaves you plenty of mental space to think about other things while you’re doing it.

On that spring afternoon, I happened to be sowing potatoes next to a flowering apple tree that was vibrating with bees. They buzzed from flower to flower and together they made a noise like a small engine. Listening to them, I was struck by this idea: Weren’t we (the bees and I) doing basically the same thing? Both of us were helping plants to reproduce.
The bees, while going after the sweet nectar in the flower, were spreading pollen from one bloom to another. The pollinated flowers would then grow into fruit (apples) with a star-shaped pattern of seeds inside. Those seeds, under the right conditions, could become new apple trees. Though I had nothing to do with creating my potato seeds, by planting and tending to them, I was also helping new plants to grow.

Of course, the bee doesn’t know that it’s helping to create new apple trees. I, on the other hand, am very aware of what I’m doing. I carefully plan my garden, deciding which seeds to plant, where and how many. In my garden, I’m in charge. If one year I decide to plant leeks and not potatoes, then that’s what gets planted. I’m helped by a long chain of other people who are making decisions: botanists who develop the seeds I plant, gardeners whose knowledge guides me in my decisions, agricultural scientists who breed new types of potatoes.
But what struck me that day, as I listened to the buzzing of the bees, was that maybe, despite all the decisions and choices we humans make, our situation really isn’t different from that of the bees. The apple tree has lured the bee into working for it spreading its genes—by the promise of nectar. The bee has no idea it has been manipulated by the tree. So I wondered: Have I been manipulated by the potato too?

Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?

We tend to think of the bee as an unwitting servant of the flower, almost as if it is “tricked” into helping the plant reproduce. But in fact, the bee and the flower are partners. Each gets something out of the arrangement. The bee gets food in the form of nectar and the flower gets help in reproducing. They each need the other. Without bees (or other pollinators), there will be no new seeds and no new flowers. Without flowers and the food they provide, no new bees.

This relationship is an example of what scientists call “coevolution.” Flowering plants and pollinators like bees and wasps evolved together over millions of years. Neither of them planned for it to happen, but over time they became dependent on each other.
Our relationship to the potato (or any of the other plants we use) isn’t much different. We both get something from the arrangement. We get food from the potato and—here is the point we often overlook—the potato gets help in reproducing.

Let’s spend a moment thinking about that.

We like to think we’re in charge, it’s all about us, we use the potato, we grow the potato, we change and breed the potato to suit our needs. Yet it is undeniable, that just like the bee and the flower, our relationship with the potato is a two-way street. Potatoes offer humans an easily grown source of food. In return, we humans have helped the potato spread from a limited area high in the Andes of South America until now, when it is grown (and eaten) all over the world. Humans and the potato are partners. Both benefit from the relationship. (I’m talking about the potato as a species or type of plant. Obviously, it doesn’t help individual potatoes to be baked, roasted, or chopped up and fried in oil.)

Looking at it this way takes human beings out of the center of the story. We are no longer the bosses, the decision makers, the ones in charge. Instead, we are part of a complex web of relationships with the natural world. Did I choose to plant potatoes, or did potatoes get me to plant them? Am I using the potato, or is it using me?

Both are true. That idea—that humans and plants exist in partnership—is the central theme of this book.

Plant Partners

This book looks at four plants that have greatly benefited from their partnership with humans—the apple, the tulip, coffee, and the potato. They are all what we call “domesticatedspecies,” but, as we will see, that can be a misleading term. Yes, we have learned to use these plants, and we’ve changed them to make them better suit our needs. But looking at it from the plants’ point of view, it’s just as true to say they have used us.

The wild ancestors of these plants—the wild tulip, the wild potato—didn’t look much like their domesticated offspring. But each had the potential to satisfy some human need or desire. They were also relatively easy for humans to grow and adapt. The apple was good at providing humans with a taste of sweetness before sugar was widely available. The tulip satisfies our desire for beauty. Coffee gives us a boost of energy and a sense of well-being. The potato has become a basic food source around the world.

Evolution is sometimes described as “survival of the fittest.” That can give the mistaken impression that it’s all about competition. Plants and animals compete for food or sunlight and the best one wins. But evolution isn’t merely driven by competition. There are many, many examples in nature of cooperation between species, of animals that have evolved together to the point where they need each other for survival.

Clown fish (like Nemo in Finding Nemo) clean sea anemones, and in turn the stinging anemones provide protection from predators. Cows rely on bacteria in their gut to digest cellulose in grasses. In return the bacteria have a safe environment and a reliable food supply. There are hundreds if not thousands of other examples, including our own partnerships with plants and animals. There’s nothing more natural. It’s just as natural as the cooperation between the bee and the flower.
We are so used to the domesticated plants and animals we live among, we have stopped thinking of them as part of the natural world. We may even look down on them a little. Maybe it’s that worddomesticated. We love our dogs, but we respect the wolf more. We think the dog is our tamed servant, but the wolf is wild and free.

But what is a dog? It’s a wolf that has evolved to be able to live with humans. You may not recognize it when you look at a toy poodle or a bulldog, but that’s what it is. Dogs are the descendants of wolves that were less aggressive and were willing to let people approach them. Those friendlier wolves benefited by getting the scraps of food humans gave them. Humans benefited by having watchdogs, hunting dogs, and companions. Over time, those friendlier wolves evolved into dogs. That evolutionary strategy has been amazingly successful. There are fifty million dogs in America today, but only ten thousand wolves.

In the same way, the domesticated plants like rice, corn, wheat, potatoes, and soybeans are the amazing success stories of the botanical world. Looking at it from the plants’ point of view, humans have done a great job at helping them reproduce and spread. Along the way, they have (with human help) adapted and changed to meet human needs even better. For example, the potato was transformed from a tiny, toxic root into a fat, nourishing food, and the tulip started as a short, unremarkable wildflower and became a tall, eye-catching beauty.

And while we have changed them, these plants have changed us as well. Each of the plants in this book has an incredible story that is part of human history. The introduction of coffee to Europe changed society and may have helped spark the Industrial Revolution. The potato became the staple food for poor people in Europe until it was struck by a disease, leading to terrible famine and emigration. In seventeenth-century Holland, in an early example of market mania, tulip bulbs briefly became worth more than their weight in gold.

The shape and size of the modern potato or the colors of a modern tulip can tell us a lot about the intertwined history of humans and plants. What did tulip breeders in Holland think was beautiful three hundred years ago? Why do we want golden potatoes rather than purple ones? What did the apple mean to Americans who were pushing into Native American land in the 1800s? These are all part of the story of plants and people.

The Genius of Plants

The partnership between plants and humans is only possible because a hundred million years ago, plants evolved a new way of reproducing—by getting animals to help them. This was an amazing step because plants can’t move about; they are, by nature, rooted in one spot. Earlier plants used the wind to carry their seeds to new areas. But then, through the random trial and error of evolution, plants stumbled on a way—actually a few thousand different ways—of getting animals to carry their genes.

This new class of plants made showy flowers and formed large seeds that attracted animals. They evolved burrs that attach to animal fur like Velcro, flowers that offered nectar to insects, and acorns that squirrels collect and bury and, just often enough, forget to eat.

Then, about ten thousand years ago, an animal was not only attracted to the seeds and fruits of flowering plants but began to think about and plan how to grow more of the ones it liked. That animal was, of course, us. This is often referred to as the “invention of agriculture,” but you might just as well call it “the invention of plants harnessing humans.”

Consider this: For millions of years grasses and trees have been locked in an ongoing battle for space and sunlight. The grasses relied on herbivores, plant-eating animals, to keep the forest from invading their turf. But they couldn’t invade the forest—there wasn’t enough light for them to grow. Then something happened that tipped the balance of power toward the grasslands. Humans found edible grasses such as wheat and corn and rice useful and tasty, so we cut down vast forests to make more room for them. The triumph of the grasses is still going on as forests are cut down to make new habitats for them, with devastating consequences for climate change.

How are plants able to attract animals and get them to spread their seeds? By being masters of chemistry—far better at it than we are. Plants live by transforming sunlight, water, and soil into an astonishing variety of substances. They make their own food and their own cells. They produce insecticides to repel harmful creatures and fragrances to attract helpful ones. They make chemical signals to communicate with other plants and insects. And they cooperate with many other organisms, especially fungi, in the soil.

These same tactics worked on us humans. We were attracted by their fruits and seeds, their colors and fragrances. And over generations we learned that many of the plants’ chemical inventions are helpful to us. Compounds invented by plants can heal us, help us stay awake, or satisfy our sweet tooth.

Plants didn’t plan to make chemicals that humans found useful. It happened by accident, as a by-product of their need for chemical defenses or to attract pollinators. But that’s the way nature and evolution work. It turned out, purely by chance, that humans and certain kinds of plants were very helpful to each other. When we worked as partners with those plants, both of us benefited.
This book tells the story of four of those partnerships. But it also tells a bigger story; the story of the interconnected relationship between human beings and nature. Often, we see ourselves in opposition to the natural world. It’s the view that puts us at the center—the bosses, the deciders—while the natural world is something that must be tamed or domesticated or simply used. In this way of looking at the world, humanity stands apart, separate from nature.

This book tells a different kind of story, one that aims to put us back in the great interconnected web that is life on Earth. My hope is that by the time you close this book’s cover, things will look a little different to you. I hope that when you see an apple tree across a road or a tulip across a table, you’ll recognize these plants as active partners in a great collaboration. Maybe you won’t go so far as to think of yourself as a bee, but you’ll understand that, like the bee, we are tied to plants and the natural world by a million invisible bonds.

Chapter One

Desire: Sweetness Plant: The Apple

Imagine yourself on the banks of the Ohio River in the spring of 1806, somewhere just north of Wheeling, West Virginia. The river is wide and brown, and its steep shores are thick with oaks and hickories. But it’s not empty. A constant fleet of canoes, barges, and other river craft go by. The boats are carrying a steady stream of American colonizers who are pushing into Native American lands west of Pennsylvania.

As you stand there, you see a strange makeshift boat drifting by. It stands out for two reasons. First, you notice the way it is made—out of two hollowed-out logs lashed together, a double canoe. Second, you see the skinny white man of about thirty, dozing in one of the canoes without a care in the world. He’s just snoozing, letting the river take him where it wants to go.
The other hull is riding low in the water, weighed down by a small mountain of seeds. The seeds have been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun. Now you realize who the sleeping man is. His name is John Chapman, but everyone knows him by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed.

Even in his own time, Johnny Appleseed was a legend, a folk hero. Among other things, he was known as an animal lover, a vegetarian, a deeply religious person, a loner but one who liked to talk to people, and a successful businessman. People who knew him say he always went barefoot and wore an old coffee sack like a poncho and a tin pot for a hat. But what he’s most famous for, of course, is planting thousands of apple trees across what would become Ohio and Indiana.
Chapman would collect bushels of seeds from waste piles at cider mills in Pennsylvania. One bushel would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees. Then he would ferry them in his double-hulled canoe, down the Ohio River, planting orchards, sometimes on land he owned and sometimes on land he didn’t. When new colonizers arrived, they would find Chapman waiting for them, ready to sell them apple trees that were already two or three years old.

The story of John Chapman, “Johnny Appleseed,” has stuck in my mind since I first learned about him years ago. To me it’s a story that captures the partnership between people and plants. Chapman seems to have understood this, that he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes compared himself to a bumblebee. Maybe that’s where I got the idea that I too was like a bee, when I was planting potatoes in my garden.
Chapman’s boat was a perfect symbol of his attitude. Instead of towing his shipment of seeds behind him, he lashed the two hulls together so they would travel down the river side by side, equal partners. Thanks to that partnership, the apple got John Chapman to spread it across the Midwest. In return, John Chapman got . . . well, that is an interesting part of the story.

As American as Apple Pie?

Like Johnny Appleseed, the apple itself has become so woven into the story of the United States that it’s easy to forget it’s not native to North America. It was brought to this hemisphere by European colonists. Yet, like so many immigrants, the apple has firmly rooted itself on this continent. Along the way, its fate has become tied up with that of people.

Other trees, like the oak, have done very well without human help. Acorns, the fruit of oak trees, are highly nutritious, but they’re far too bitter for us to eat. Instead, oaks have a fine partnership with squirrels, who bury acorns for winter food and then forget about one-quarter of them. (That number comes from Beatrix Potter, who wrote the Peter Rabbit books, so it may not be completely accurate.) Whatever the real number is, squirrels spread oak seeds in return for the acorns they eat.

The apple, however, has proven much more adaptable to human needs. It comes in so many varieties that people have been able to find many uses for it. Meanwhile, the apple hasn’t just become a part of our diet. It has also become a part of our culture. Today, an apple is a symbol of health, wholesomeness, and even patriotism. We say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” or that something is “as American as apple pie.”

When I started this book, I wanted to understand how the apple had made such a successful partnership with human beings. I wanted to find out how this fruit had earned such a unique place in our lives. And what better place to start than with the story of Johnny Appleseed?

Today, we think of apples as the perfect example of sweetness and goodness. Likewise, John Chapman—Johnny Appleseed—is looked upon as an almost saint-like figure, bringing goodness and “civilization” to the “wilderness.” But the truth is something stranger and more interesting.

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