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.