Evolution of plants as explained in Michael Pollan’s new book, Botany of Desire

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BOB EDWARDS, host:

Plants have evolved complicated strategies to ensure their survival. The most obvious is the flower, designed to attract pollinators, typically bees. In his new book, “The Botany of Desire,” Michael Pollan suggests that the plant world’s most obliging suitor is man, and the plants that have figured out how best to keep people interested are nature’s greatest success stories. Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Much of his writing has drawn from his experiences in his Connecticut garden. Ketzel Levine spoke with him there for the first of two reports.

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

Michael Pollan gardens with a deft touch. His home is more of a landscape than a carefully defined garden. Despite everything he’s added, the paths and stone steps, the hand-dug pond, the writing house and the fenced vegetable garden, what you see is the Connecticut countryside, a rolling geography of hills and woods. ‘Here’s a gardener,’ you might say to yourself, ‘who really gets it, a guy who’s struck a balance in the wild.’

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author): There’s a new animal. Look at that hole. Wow, that is too big for a chipmunk, too small for a woodchuck. I’m going to have to keep an eye on this.

LEVINE: And your instinct is to do what?

Mr. POLLAN: Stuff something in it.

LEVINE: Something like motor oil, perhaps, or maybe molasses, both of which Michael Pollan used liberally during the heinous woodchuck war. I’ll spare you the details, suffice it to say he was left slightly singed and entirely humbled. The woodchuck was never heard from again.

Mr. POLLAN: Actually, that episode was the beginning of my realizing that, ‘What a wonderful arena to kind of explore a relationship to nature. What a great place to work out our feelings of propriety, you know, that this is ours, but not really; that there are other creatures in nature that are competing with us for the protein and the food that we grow. That was the beginning of my realizing that the garden was a great laboratory. And my garden has been where I’ve gone to learn about nature.

LEVINE: And where he gets his best ideas. In his latest book, Michael Pollan works through a question that occurred to him while sowing vegetable seeds. ‘Did I choose these plants, or did these plants choose me?’ He didn’t mean consciously, of course, but what Pollan did wonder was whether plants have evolved to be attractive to us in the way they’ve evolved to seduce bees. Though the way he writes it, the bees have a whole lot more fun.

Mr. POLLAN: The bees. The bees will let themselves be lured into the most ridiculous positions, avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick, purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in a single peony’s blond Medusa thatch of stamens. To my eye, the bees appear lost in transports of sexual ecstasy. But, of course, that’s only a coincidence”"Isn’t it?”"that this passionate flower be embraced that made people think about sex for a thousand years before pollination was understood really is about sex.

LEVINE: Call it the botany of desire.

Mr. POLLAN: And from the plant’s point of view, which is really what I’ve tried to do in this book, is take the plant’s point of view into consideration, we’re exactly like the bee. We’re a credulous mammal who has been induced by these plants because of their Darwinian brilliance, basically to give us what we want, to gratify our desires, doing what they can’t do for themselves. Because the one great thing plants can’t do is move, or I should say locomote. They can move on the wind and in the water, but they didn’t put their evolutionary energy into working on locomotion. They put it into chemistry, into biochemistry, into developing all these incredible chemical substances that work as defense, as attraction. That’s what they got good at. While we were working on consciousness and locomotion, they were working on biochem, and they really nailed it.

LEVINE: I love the idea of people poring through garden books, deciding what it is that they want to plant, completely unaware that the plant…

Mr. POLLAN: That the plant is like, ‘Hello.’

LEVINE: …had something to do with it.

Let’s not forget, though, that this is co-evolution, a give and take of objectives. A plant may strut its stuff with a purple-leaved, double-flowered mutation, but it’s up to us to say, ‘Yes.’ Once we’ve done that, suggests Pollan, one we’ve said, ‘This color and that shape,’ we’ve stamped that flower with our own cultural esthetic, and we’ve diverted its evolutionary path.

Mr. POLLAN: All those people at the seed companies are surrogates for our tastes, you know. They decide we need a white marigold and they know from their market research that a white marigold will sell. And sooner or later, the marigold obliges with a white mutation. You have a contest, you pay enough money, I mean, this is where the market comes into the process. And then all of a sudden, the marigold is evolving in the direction of that desire for white. That’s survival of the fittest in this other garden, and in the garden of artificial selection.

LEVINE: It’s a little scary, because who’s to say that our taste is any good, and what we’re missing on what this plant might come up with by inflicting this on them?

Mr. POLLAN: You know, it’s one of the interesting things about it, that domesticated species don’t do very well in the wild. I mean, many garden plants cannot live outside of the garden. They need us to turn the soil, they need us to water them. They’re less tough. And then when our regard, or our sense of fashion moves on, they’re screwed.

LEVINE: Author Michael Pollan, whose book, “The Botany of Desire,” includes a chapter about an exotic fruit that stowed away to America.

Mr. POLLAN: What I think the apple did is it naturalized itself, just the way we did. I mean, the apple made itself American.

LEVINE: It also liquored up the American frontier. Tomorrow, the apple. For NPR News, I’m Ketzel Levine.

EDWARDS: There’s more about “The Botany of Desire” on Ketzel’s Web site, talkingplants@npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Bob Edwards.

Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved.