Viewers get a plants-eye view in 'The Botany of Desire'

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One day, while planting potatoes in his garden, Michael Pollan had an epiphany. Above his head, bees were buzzing about an apple tree in blossom, moving from flower to flower, collecting nectar and inadvertently moving pollen. How was he, the human, any different from the bees? He was planting the potatoes so he could eat them, but at the same time, he was helping them expand their habitat, just as the bees were helping the apples.

In his 2001 best-seller "The Botany of Desire," Pollan ("Omnivore's Dilemma," "In Defense of Food") explored the connections between human beings and four domesticated plants -- apples, tulips, cannabis and potatoes -- from the plants' points of view. These four plants are true success stories. By feeding our desire for sweetness (apples), beauty (tulips), intoxication (cannabis) and control (potatoes), they ensured that we would be highly motivated to help them flourish, expanding their original territories a thousandfold.

Now Michael Schwartz has produced a film adaptation, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on PBS. While the amount of information is edited down from the book, the film includes interviews with new people, and the visual appeal makes up for much of the missing text. Schwartz takes his audience from the native apple groves of Kazakhstan to the potato fields of Peru to the floor of the world's largest flower auction in Holland.

"I was amazed by how much of the spirit and material he got into it," Pollan said in a recent interview.

Schwartz alternates between interview segments with Pollan and other science and agriculture experts and vivid shots of the films' stars -- the plants.

"There was a moment when I was going to go on location with them and be the on-camera presence," explained Pollan, but his schedule limited his ability to travel, a change he thinks ultimately benefited the film. "It really is about the plants, and having a human being as your guide isn't really the way to get that across."

A long-time friend of Pollan's, Schwartz read the "Botany of Desire" manuscript before it was published and immediately saw its potential as a documentary. Unfortunately, it took seven years to get funding for the TV project.

"The reason it was a hard process was because of the marijuana chapter," Pollan said. Neither the book nor the film take a position on the morality of drug use. Instead, "it's trying to look at it as a human phenomenon. People will choose drugs over food when they get deep into the wilds of addiction. It's a powerful human urge, and this is evidence of how powerful it is ... look at the amounts of money people will spend, the risks they will take."

The "forbidden fruit" element certainly gives this section extra powers of fascination. Who knew that by driving marijuana growers indoors, government agencies also set the stage for plant breeding that would vastly increase the strength of the drug?

But people may be more surprised to learn that, in their time, each of these seemingly innocent plants has been at the center of great controversy and even disaster.

The film does an impressive job of demonstrating how a monoculture -- a lack of genetic diversity -- in Irish potato fields led to the Irish potato famine, which began in 1845, lasted for six years and resulted in more than 1 million people dying from starvation.

That's where the film (and Pollan's) message becomes clear. We might like sweet apples, but if we grow only a few kinds (the sweetest), we could wind up losing the entire crop to a single disease or pest. Just this past summer, Northeast tomato crops were decimated by late blight, a strand of the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine. Pollan explained, "A system with biodiversity has a lot more resistance."

That's what he hopes people will take away from the film, Pollan said. "We have to understand that we don't stand outside nature acting on it. We are in the web of life."


China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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