A Plant’s-Eye View

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire. Random House.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire aims at presenting case studies that show how human desires have shaped the way in which we have selected plants over the ages. In his introduction, Pollan suggests that our relationship with plants is comparable to that of the honeybee: the bee needs a plants nectar and pollen to create honey, and in exchange, spreads the plant’s genes. Pollan states that “the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom” (Pollan, p 13). Therefore, Pollan uses this example to show that we are just as much a slave to the plant as the humble bumblebee.

In chapter 7 of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel titled How to Make an Almond, he begins by giving his definition of plant domestication. He states that it “may be defined as growing a plant and thereby, consciously or unconsciously, causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor” (Diamond, p. 258). The question Diamond poses in this chapter, is why have some plants been domesticated for centuries, whereas some plants remain undomesticated today?

He begins by creating a similar point to Pollan, in that “while some plant species have seeds adapted for being carried by the wind or for floating on water, many others trick an animal into carrying their seeds,” and depositing them far away to continue the growth of their species (Diamond, p. 260-61). Although this wouldn’t adhere to Diamond’s definition of domestication, because these animals do not consciously grow plants.

He then goes onto his example of the almond, which was originally poisonous in the wild. Human selection led to the selection of those which had a one-gene mutation that caused the almond to be sweet. Although the trees with the mutation would die out in the wild due to the lack of protection, they thrived amongst farmers who would only plant the sweet almonds. Diamond then goes on to describe more unconscious means of human selection including seed dispersal, dormancy (extended germination), enclosing seeds, and plant reproduction. “Thus, farmers selected from among individual plants on the basis not only of perceptible qualities like size and taste, but also of invisible features like seed dispersal mechanisms, germination inhibition, and reproductive biology. As a result, different plants became selected for quite different or even opposite features” (Diamond p. 276-277). In all of these cases, certain plants prevailed to be adopted by farmers, whereas others did not.

Diamond then goes on to describe the progression of domestication throughout the history for the Fertile Crescent. Seed crops, which were easy to grow and store, therefore their domestication came first around 10,000 years ago. They were followed by the first fruit and nut trees, olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, and grapes which were domesticated around 4000 B.C. (Diamond, p. 281). The final stage, and the most difficult to cultivate, were fruit trees such as apples, pears, plums, and cherries, which couldn’t be grown from cuttings.

Both Pollan and Diamond suggest that the plants themselves have played a roll in the ways in which humans have began to select plants, and therefore help in creating a “plant’s-eye view” of domestication. Whether consciously or unconsciously on the part of both the plant and the human, we have chosen to domesticate plants for a whole heap of reasons other than simple taste.

 

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