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The Botany of Desire

Distributed by PBS
Produced by Michael Schwarz
Director n/a
DVD, color, 120 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Agriculture, Bioethics, History, Nutrition

Reviewed by Barb Bergman, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 2/22/2010

The Botany of Desire, based on Michael Pollan’s 2001 book of the same name, explores the natural history of four well-known plants while connecting them to human desires that have lead to their worldwide appeal.

According to Pollan, apples represent the desire for sweet, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication, and potatoes for control of nature. Expected comments on agricultural issues such as plant variety, plant disease, organic farming, and improvement through genetic modification – whether through hybridization or scientific methods – are included. What makes the film interesting, however, is that it also includes historical perspective on the human cultivation of these plants. The effect of public opinion on the plants’ usage provides a different perspective on marketing. Apples were a source of alcohol for centuries before sweeter apples and good marketing reinvented it as a healthful fruit. (Pollan’s analysis of Johnny Appleseed is very different than the one taught in grade school.) Tulips were a symbol of wealth whose history includes an over-priced market and its sudden collapse. Planting potatoes initially saved the Irish, but later decimated Ireland because of Irish reliance on a single variety, a mistake the French fry industry is repeating. Cannabis (marijuana) has a long history of use as an accepted painkiller and leisure drug prior to its current status as an illegal substance.

Michael Pollan provides interview commentary, while Frances McDormand serves as narrator.

Production values are excellent. Each of the four topics is covered for thirty minutes, with the sections divided into 15 minute chapters, making the film well suited for classroom use. DVD contains an additional hour of scenes and interviews.

Highly recommended for use in lessons on a wide range of subjects such as biology, agriculture, bioethics, and also for areas such as social history, marketing, and public policy.