'Botany of Desire' Left me Wanting More

Last week, like many gardeners, I sat down to watch the Botany of Desire documentary on PBS. Not having read Michael Pollan’s book I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was expecting a lot because it was so heavily hyped among blogs and Twitter accounts I follow.

My first reaction to the two-hour-long documentary was that it was an hour too long. Since it premiered I’ve watched Botany of Desire four times, just to make sure I was giving it chance to win me over, after I didn’t warm to it the first viewing. I want to like this documentary, but I have to make myself like it.

The documentary suffers from a severe case of split personality. Half of the documentary covers botanical history and the other half is a warning about the dangers of monocultures and GMOs. The preview of the documentary sold it as being about  “Four plants that have traveled the road to success by satisfying human desires.” When it veers off into the preachy parts I start to feel like I’m nine and stuck in church on a beautiful Sunday morning. I can’t focus on anything other than the shirt and tie that is scratching my neck and these uncomfortable shoes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I can appreciate proselytizing, but I prefer my sermons to be heavy on the fire and brimstone. If you’re going to preach at me at least scare me into paying attention.

A blogger I read wrote that they loved that Michael Pollan included the segment on the organic potato farmer. Seriously? I’d say the portion of the documentary that covered the potato was a PR victory for the agro-industrial complex. You can hear the violins playing for the potato farmer as he bemoans the fact that he can’t grow genetically modified plants and walks off toward the horizon. I wonder if executives at McDonald’s were high-fiving each other and yelling, ‘In. Your. Face. Foodies.” If not for McDonald’s wanting to save face half the world would probably be eating New Leaf™ potatoes right now. If monocultures and the Monsanto Company were going to be called out it should have been done with some spine. 

Where the documentary excels is when it is covering the history of plants. If everything else would have been left on the cutting room floor it would be a solid documentary for the plant lover. Although, Botany of Desire doesn’t really bring anything new to the table that you can’t get from other documentaries that focus on plants and spare you the preachy tone. If Michael Pollan wasn’t attached to this documentary it wouldn’t have gotten the attention and adulation it has received.

Whether you’re growing plants for their beauty or you’re growing plants to feed yourself or your family, knowing the history of plants and the lengths people went through to collecting and cultivate them can only make you appreciate them more. If you’re going to watch Botany of Desire, record it first so you can skip past the parts that don’t interest you.

A good, albeit small, book to look out for in used bookstores is 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells. On television try to catch First Flower, Seedy Side of Plants and The Queen of Trees. You can also watch the full-length version of Botany of Desire on PBS. 


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  • Interesting! I recorded it but haven't watched it yet. I also have not read the book. I saw some tweets that there might be scares of GMOs in it? That would be disappointing to me...

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    What do you mean by "scares of GMOs?" Do you mean that they take them to task or that they're too easy on GMOs? I don't really believe in making gardening and growing food political, but I found myself wondering "is this it?" They gave the pro-GMO side a lot of air time and I thought that after all that camera time they were going to rip into them, but it just kinda left me hanging. I think the pro-GMO side came out looking pretty sympathetic and I was really surprised because online people make Michael Pollan out to be some kind of shining white knight who is going to save us all.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I guess I was worried they were too ANTI GMO. I tend to be more for it than against it for food crops as a way to feed the world. Heck, corn has been GMO for years. I also don't like fear-mongering, which, IMHO, is what a lot of people against GMOs pander in. (Um, not that I've watched it yet and not that I'm particularly political myself.)

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Shut the front door!

    You're pro-GMOs? I never would've guessed that. Since you like natives, I thought you'd be against them in all forms. Wow.

    You continue to amaze me. :0)

  • Botany of Desire is probably my favorite of Michael Pollan's books, and not least because when he wrote it he hadn't yet devolved into the kind of one-dimensional Sustainability Guru that the message machine is turning him into. He left out the preachiness and teachiness that has crept into his later works, and was very much apparent in the doc. Still, always glad to see plants front and center, and if it gets people thinking about food as something other than faster, easier, I'm satisfied.

  • In reply to naxn:

    It is good to "see plants front and center." Maybe I shouldn't complain about this doc since it is such a rare occurrence these days of flashy landscape makeover TV shows.

  • Oh no. I've been so looking forward to watching this..My collar is already scratching my neck. I have a low preachy threshold, fire and brimstone or no. Thanks for the heads up. At least now I won't be expecting much.

  • In reply to Kerry:

    "At least now I won't be expecting much."

    Since you have it recorded just skip past the boring parts. In the part about potatoes, after you see the Peruvian guy with the missing front tooth you can skip a large chunk until it gets to the organic potato grower.

    From tweets and email convos I gather people didn't care much for the section on Cannabis, so you can skip that too.


  • In reply to Kerry:

    I had a completely different take on it. One of the things I like about Pollan is how he backs up his work scientifically. Another is that I don't find him at all preachy, although I do find his arguments compelling. I enjoyed the entire program, including the section on cannabis. I enjoyed his reasoned, rational approach to this polarizing subject.

    The premise of the program (and the book,) is how plants have evolved to satisfy humans' yearnings and needs, have made themselves indispensable, and as such have, in their own way manipulated humans into insuring the spreading of their genes, and hence their survival. I think it's a fascinating concept, eloquently portrayed in the book and in the PBS documentary. Having read the book I had a good idea what to expect of the program.

    I'm not a fan of fire and brimstone, preferring rationality, facts, balance, and reason.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Botany of Desire, would have liked it to be longer, and went to the PBS website to watch the supplemental material in addition to the documentary, which I watched twice.

    I haven't read any blogs, tweets, or reviews on the program. Maybe I'm just a total plant geek, but I didn't find any part of Botany of Desire boring. at all.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:


    You're the first person that really liked it, that I've read, that was able to express why they liked it with a real opinion, give reasons and not just sound like a fanboy/girl. Thanks!

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