Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan

Almost ten years ago, a really interesting book by Michael Pollan was published called The Botany of Desire.  The main premise of the work is taken from view of the plant and how humans have directly been affected by their evolution.  It's a fascinating take on how apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana have evolved over the past decades and centuries in some cases.  Dan and I watched the documentary film made by PBS based on the book a few nights ago and I was particularly taken with it.  It got the gears cranking in my head, and now a simple trip to the grocery has become an anthropological riddle.

I couldn't help but notice all of the varieties of apples when I was at the Star Market yesterday here in Brookline.  Even my local supermarket has about 10 different types of apples in the cold winter months. I bought an assortment of Pink Lady, Macoon, Braeburn, and Fuji. BTW, the Pink Lady was my favorite. Anyway, all those apples really got me thinking about the sheer variety that is out there and what a beautiful thing an apple is on its own.  It's a fruit that we easily take for granted these days just because it is so common.  That's a shame because a lot has gone into the evolution of the apple and because of its history and close ties especially this country, it deserves a lot more respect than merely a casual appreciation.

Pollan's discussion of apples points out how incredibly prone to mutation apples are in that if you plant an apple from seed, there is not guarantee that it will produce fruit anything like that parent tree. It's theorized that originally apples come from the forests of Kazakhstan, also the genetic home of the tulip according to the film and book.  Most apples, in fact, were not sweet at all originally and the cultivation of sweet apples has occurred through the practice of grafting over centuries.  As recently as about a hundred years ago, it was still considered something really special if an apple tree in your orchard produced sweet apples suitable for eating.  Ninety percent of all apples were used to make alcoholic cider in this country during the settlement days, and because of proliferators like Johnny Appleseed, cider was the most readily available and most popular adult beverage of early times in this country. The historical context is fascinating and makes me appreciate the huge variety of edible apples available today and the immediate availability of ones that are good to eat.  Our desire for sweetness has driven the way the plant has evolved in recent times.

Check out this excellent documentary from PBS and you'll be learning plenty about apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana too.  I had no idea that the evolution of each plant has been so closely tied to human evolution.  I'm anxious to read Pollan's book as well.  Just goes to show that there is always something more to learn.

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