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Hamptons Life

'The Botany of Desire' is worth watching

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Andrew Messinger   Oct 22, 2009 3:13 PM

Next Wednesday evening, on October 28, I’d like you to set aside a couple of hours from 8 to 10 p.m. to watch television (or at least record it) as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) will be presenting a film based on Michael Pollan’s 2002 book “The Botany of Desire.”

This film will be about our relationship to domesticated plants, but from the plant’s point of view.

I’d read many of Mr. Pollan’s articles in the Sunday Times magazine and my sister insisted that I read his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which I later recommended in this column. “The Botany of Desire” is simply amazing. I have to rate Mr. Pollan’s work consistently up there with that of Rachel Carson and others who have shaped my view of the world we live in and seek to change.

The film takes a look at four plants—apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes—and how they have learned to change cultures. One might even go so far as to say the plants control us humans.

The film begins on an orchard tour in New England where we learn how to pick the apples. The story is told about how the apple has adapted to our needs today, and yet we’re reminded that in earlier days the apple was an evil fruit.

We all know the Biblical significance of the apple, but the fruit was also later used to produced hard cider in the early Colonial days, which led many of our ancestors down the road to evil.

Back to the Bible. Remember the Garden of Eden? Adam and Eve? The apple? Sweetness and temptation? Mr. Pollan points out that it was probably not an apple but a pomegranate since apples didn’t grow in the Biblical lands.

Edible apples, when picked at the right time of the year, were originally discovered in Kazakhstan. Even to this day, in the hills of Kazakhstan there are thousands of varieties of apples, what Mr. Pollan refers to as God’s first draft.

The film also touches on the story of Johnny Appleseed and his route to riches as he started apple nurseries across the country. But did he actually start his trees from seed since the seed generally doesn’t produce the same apples? In fact, the product of the planted seed usually produces an ugly and sour fruit.

The settlers actually learned the ancient art of grafting to constantly produce sweet apples. But the settlers continued to grow the seedling trees and that’s how hard drink (alcohol) came to the colonies. Since drinking water was feared (from the diseases associated with the waters of Europe), hard cider was the drink de jour and the apple became the evil fruit as the associated problems of a drunken population became a national issue.

Up to the year 1900, apples were used for drinking. After 1900, the fruits were eaten too.

From hundreds of varieties in the early days, we went to only a handful in the 1960s. And as we’re told in the film, the apple became a sitting duck at that time. The diseases and insects endemic to a monoculture threatened the entire apple industry.

The solution? Back to Kazakhstan. Or was it Geneva, New York? And now, hard cider is even making a remarkable comeback.

Next we’re on to the tulip and how it’s taken over the world—it’s called “tulip fever” and those working with this flower say that once you begin working with tulips, the fever is hard to break. The Dutch can attest to this.

The tulip has mutated and varied and it’s probably the most manipulated, cultivated and distributed flower in history. But like much in our lives, it’s all about sex and how the appeal of the tulip—found originally in the Kazakhstan area (popular place!)— and our understanding of sex and genes and genetic variation led to tulips being the flower of favor from the Ottoman Empire to modern time.

Believe it or not, the simple flower has created a variety of troubles; political downfalls, an investment bubble known as “tulipmania” and the ruin of families and dynasties. Yet, the flower is still with us and still being bred today.

At one point, one special tulip bulb was valued at what would be the equivalent of $12 million today—until, of course, the tulip market crashed.

But in the end, all the valuable tulips were sick, very, very sick. And modern tulip breeders? Sex crazed again.

The film then takes us on to a lowly weed that’s not beautiful or sweet. It’s in a class of plants that creates molecules that can alter our minds. I’m talking about cannabis or marijuana, which, like the other plants, has spread throughout the world.

Man has always sought to alter his consciousness. And as a result, man likes marijuana and has spread this plant throughout the world. In spite of the legal implications, it’s still grown, cultivated and studied.

“The Botany of Desire” follows the horticultural challenges of marijuana that a couple of cannabis growers in California are up against, as well as exploring the long history of humankind’s desire to grow psychoactive plants.

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