"The Botany of Desire," a PBS documentary, directed by Michael Schwarz and based upon journalist Michael Pollan’s 2001 book of the same title, explores human-plant symbiosis and coevolution “from the plants’ point of view.” The documentary closely follows Pollan’s book, heavily featuring the author as he attempts to represent the history of four plants that have evolved to maximally appeal to humans: the apple (playing on the human desire for sweetness), the tulip (desire for beauty), cannabis (intoxication), and the potato (control). The film’s extensive macro cinematography and high production value perhaps tends to fetishize these plants as much as it anthropomorphizes them, yet is nonetheless curiously effective in its exploration of symbiosis as desire for the same reason. The history of each of these plants is indeed fascinating, and the film fully embraces their hybrid nature: as products of evolution within a “natural” environment, as social constructs, as the outcome of human genetic experimentation (breeding and genetic engineering) as economic entities (goods, services, objects of speculative bubbles) and as political objects.
Ultimately, it’s a story about innovation. Some plants come out winners (the virus-infected Semper Augustus tulip in 1630s Holland, “sexually frustrated” marijuana plants), others losers (sour apples after the temperance movement took root in America). Essentially, each of the plants explored here is the nexis of an innovation ecology that involves social, political, and biological actors. Structural effects, such as the vulnerability introduced by monocultures, are treated extensively. The Irish Potato famine stands in as the primary lesson here: it was the result of an extensive monoculture of “Lumpers.” Schwarz and Pollan are quick to note that “monocultures on the plate lead to monocultures on the land.” That is, innovation and cultivation cannot be considered outside of their social contexts. Ultimately, the film figures innovation as diversification and notes that most of our attempts at agricultural innovation currently consist of inventing ever more elaborate technological methods of protecting increasingly vulnerable monocultures, a losing game and evolutionary dead end.