In class, we watched Botany of Desire, a documentary that discusses human’s relationship with plants, from a plant’s point of view. Plants have always been known to conform to human desire. Plants fill the desire of beauty, control, sweetness, intoxication, and much more. Botany of Desire shows how humans are part of the web of nature by going to different parts of the world to explore interaction and history between plants and animals. Why are the plants that humans favor more desirable?
I included this info graphic to summarize key points throughout the documentary!
Botany of Desire starts its journey by exploring the forests of Central Asia, where the apple originated, then across the silk road and later reach America. Apples have been known to satisfy one’s craving for sweetness- desire for sweetness is innate because it notifies humans that they are getting enough calories and are not poisonous. Sweeter apples also had better chances of reproducing in nature because bears would eat the sweeter apples and the apple seeds would be spread through the bear’s waste. The documentary mentions Johnny Appleseed, who was known for planting apple seeds. Apple seeds do not transfer genetic traits down to their offspring. These apples had very low sugar content and were often known as “the evil apple” because they were used to make hard cider. Later in the 1990s, people starting grafting which is cloning a plant by using its sprout. Sweet apple trees took over and the apple was rebranded as a health food. While hearing this story, I thought back to the idea, “do we control plants to fit to our liking, or do plants adapt on their own and use humans as an advantage?” I think that humans and plants benefit off of one another. Humans do not control plants and plants do not evolve specifically to adapt to humans.
The next stop in the documentary is the Netherlands in 1637, where “Tulip mania” occurred. Tulips gardens became a symbol of wealth.. Broken tulips, or tulips that had multicolored petals, the most rare tulips, were considered the most beautiful and were the most desirable. Planting a tulip bulb (the part of the plant underneath the ground) is the only way to ensure that the tulip offspring will have identical traits to its parent.The Dutch became very successful in world trade for their tulip bulbs. People were paying fortunes for tulip bulbs that produced Broken Tulips, which soon lost their worth, leading to the end of of “Tulip Mania.” The tulip was blamed for the economic disaster. For this situation, I do not think that the Tulip had anything to do with its reproductive success, only the people did. Tulip mania shows how humans can affect the success of a plant, allowing Tulips to spread throughout the Netherlands and the homes of their trade partners. Without humans, Tulips would not have spread as rapidly because they occupied mostly home gardens. In the documentary, the phrase “exquisitely useless.” I think that this phrase shows how humans will invest in luxury, even if its only purpose is to be visually attractive. The Tulip was lucky to have been planted in various places, but the luck ended when Tulips were no longer a trend.
Botany of Desire also talks about Cannabis, often called “Marijuana” throughout the world. Cannabis produces a psychoactive resin called tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC. Marijuana is illegal in most countries, however, it used to be used as a pain treatment for labor pains, rheumatism, and asthma. Marijuana soon developed a negative connotation, in 20th Century, Marijuana was smoked by Mexican immigrants. The habit soon spread to the jazz community, becoming a large part of the 1960s generation. The government forced Mexican pilots to spray Herbicide poison on the marijuana fields in hopes to end all Marijuana crops. Growers then decided that they had to grow indoors and in secret if they wanted to continue to have a profit. The marijuana that has been growing was 12 feet tall so growers bred two strains that made the plants become shorter, faster, and grow stronger. Cannabis requires specific environments to produce THC, which demanded lots of time and efforts for growers. Something I found really interesting, is how marijuana farmers specifically separated male marijuana plants from female marijuana plants. Female marijuana plants produce a resin that pollen (from male plants) to, so separating the male and female plants ensured that the female plants would produce more resin in hopes to attract pollen. This growing technique allowed growers to yield a more plant that had higher THC potency, making the crop more expensive. This process shows how humans are able to manipulate plants to their liking. Like the Tulip and apple, cannabis was changed and planted throughout the world to satisfy humans.
Another plant discussed in Botany of Desire was the Potato. The potato was a very practical crop that needed few people to tend to it, thrived in cold weather, and was a good food source Ireland became VERY dependent on the potato for food. The Irish planted mone type of potato, AKA the “lumper,” which became a monoculture. A monoculture is when one species/plant/breed is planted at the same time. In 1845, a ship was carrying a fungus contained wind spread spores which spread through Ireland and killed all the potato crops. The famine killed 1 million people (1 out of 8 people in ireland). This example shows how humans have a large effect on plant populations, but also how nature can create changes beyond the human control. Despite the Irish potato famine, the potato is still a common food in modern days throughout the world. Each year, Americans consume about 7 and a half billion lbs of french fries. Fast food industry relies on the russet burbank potato, which is long enough to produce fries that fit America’s standards. In the documentary, Michael Pollan states that “Monocultures of the plate lead to monocultures of the land.” This quote means that when humans have a strict desire for a particular food, then it greatly affects the crops that will be grown.
After watching the documentary, I reflected on how much society can affect the world around us. That may sound like something obvious, but human desires do influence plants. Nature may sometimes overrule human efforts, as shown during the potato famine, but plants and humans both affect one another in positive ways. Whether humans are manipulating crops, or seeds germinating in a foreign place, plants and humans will always rely one another.