Plants: are we using them – or are they using us?

July 29, 2008

Apple a day...........
How has our love of the apple’s
sweetness affected the plant itself?
Creative Commons License photo credit: suchitraprints

Did you know that the HMNS has a book club? Every month we discuss a different book – something that relates, in some way or another – to an exhibit or permanent hall at the museum.  This last month’s selection, Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, was linked to the Butterfly Center by virtue of its subject matter.  As the museum’s token botanist, I was asked to attend to help guide the discussion.

Having heard good reports on the book, and having greatly enjoyed Pollan’s more recent work, Omnivore’s Dilemma (an excellent and entertaining book that will change the way you think about food and where it comes from), I looked forward to reading Botany of Desire.  I found it fascinating, and learned a lot.  Pollan showcases four plants that are, or have been, of major importance in human history.  His premise is that such plants are not passive artifacts of artificial selection, but instead have capitalized on human “desires” to promote their own success. 

Yes, humans have selected certain traits in the plants we grow, but the plants’ ability to respond to our desire for those traits have made some species supremely successful, both in population size and in geographical distribution.  The plants that Pollan highlights are the apple (representing our desire for sweetness), the tulip (our desire for beauty), marijuana (our desire for intoxication), and the potato (our desire for control).  

Pollan provides fascinating stories about the roles these four plants have played in human history.  We learn that the Johnny Appleseed story most of us heard as kids is a highly sanitized and Disneyfied caricature.  The real man, an eccentric mystic named John Chapman, grew apples and dispersed their seeds and saplings throughout the American frontier – not to bring healthy and delicious fruits to everyone, but to provide the makings for an alcoholic beverage – hard apple cider.  We also learned that apples do not grow true from seed – so the different cultivars must all be propagated by grafting – and that today only a very few of hundreds of cultivars are grown commercially.  

Tulips Up Close
Creative Commons License photo credit: inkswamp

Tulips have captivated Ottoman sultans and Dutch businessmen, driving them to near insane lengths in their passion to possess the latest color or petal shape.  Tulips also had somewhat more tempered heydays in England and France, and are still a very popular seasonal flower around the world.  Did you know that the name “tulip” comes from the Turkish word for turban (describing the shape of the flower)?  One of the most coveted tulip cultivars in the 17th century, the “broken tulip” with swirls of color reaching through the petals, whose bulbs sold for unheard of sums amongst highly competitive buyers, owed its dramatic color pattern to a virus that infected the petals, and eventually killed the stock.   

Pollan also discusses “plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.” The ability of cannabis – commonly called marijuana – to do so has changed this plant from a weed native to the Americas into something grown exclusively indoors, and in some places, illegally. It can be used as an intoxicant, a medicine or as a fiber – hemp.

Why, Pollan asks, does the United States outlaw it as a dangerous drug, while condoning alcohol – a far more addictive substance?  He points out that every culture throughout human history has had its “accepted” and “taboo” mind-altering potions – and discusses how the illegality of marijuana has affected the development of the plant itself, suggesting that it has “thrived on its taboo” status. 

Potato Salad
Creative Commons License photo credit: psd

Finally we learn the amazing historical journey of the potato.  Originally from South America, it was a staple in the Incan diet but was not well received in Europe until it became of supreme importance as a major food source in Ireland.  Then, in 1845 the potato famine hit (a fungus killed the entire crop over the next three years) and Ireland felt the devastating result of depending on a monoculture.  Today the potato is one of several food crops that have been genetically modified by biotech companies such as Monsanto, whose “NewLeaf” potato has the DNA of a potato-beetle killing bacterium spliced into the potato’s genome.  Pollan wonders whether these new “improved” (and patented) potatoes are good news or bad. 

Our meeting room was crowded, and our conversation ranged widely, from people’s favorite apples to reactions to genetically modified foods.  We noted that there are many other plants with equally fascinating histories that Pollan could have chosen to discuss:  the rose, the tomato, rice, wheat, corn, rubber, bananas, tobacco, grapes – to mention just a few.  Certainly his book made us think about some of these others, and how they too have impacted humankind and our history.

While reading Botany of Desire I was frequently reminded of the superb David Attenborough series called The Private Life of Plants. The amazing photography and Attenborough’s prose bring to vivid life the fascinating behavior of plants and suggest that we underestimate the power of plants to shape the world around them.  Attenborough asks, “Are we using plants such as wheat, or are they using us?”  At the end of the book I understood why Attenborough’s work came so frequently to mind – Pollan credits The Private Life of Plants as the inspiration for his work. 

I highly recommend both – the Attenborough series and the Pollan book – to anyone interested in plants and our vital relationship with them.

The HMNS book club’s next selection is also a great read – Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, is an engaging, funny, and informative look at our 3.5 billion years of evolution.  Check it out – and leave a comment to let us know what you think.

Ed. note: The HMNS book club is a project of our volunteer department – yet another great reason to donate your body to science this year!

Interested in plants? Check out:
What plants attract butterflies to your garden? The ones they like to eat.
They’re the Jolly Green Giants of the plant world: Redwoods.
These roses have serious personality.

Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

One response to “Plants: are we using them – or are they using us?”

  1. Daniel says:

    I read similar article also named are we using them – or are they using us? | BEYONDbones, and it was completely different. Personally, I agree with you more, because this article makes a little bit more sense for me

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