My Green City Life


Johnny Appleseed’s gift
August 6, 2007, 11:35 pm
Filed under: in the kitchen

A few weeks ago, I read _The Botany of Desire_ by Michael Pollan. It’s a fascinating book that examines the relationship between humans and plants and how we use each other to satisfy our desires. The plants’ desire is to multiply and spread their genes far and wide. The four human desires Pollan discusses are sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana), and control (the potato).

In the first chapter, which is the apple chapter, he discusses biodiversity, a theme that resurfaces many times throughout the book. Biodiversity is an issue that should be extremely important to us today. We live in a world where only a few varieties of each kind of fruit or vegetable dominate the market. Unless you are a farmer/gardener or you frequent farmers markets, you may not even realize that there are varieties of fruits and vegetables that you can’t get at the grocery store. For example, I didn’t know eggplants could be tiny or white or ball-shaped or long and thin until I had my first garden and looked through a seed catalog. I was 24 years old.

The dominance of only a few varieties of each type of plant in the mainstream market is detrimental for the plant in that it doesn’t get a chance to mix up its genes to learn new tricks for fending off predators or luring in those who would plant its seeds, either wittingly or not. (Imagine if humans all came from one shallow, stagnant gene pool!)

On huge “factory” farms, the survival of the plant no longer rests with its unique ability to deal with its surroundings; it depends on the farmer and his deadly tools of the trade. Farmers growing large expanses of just one variety of one crop are forced to spray with pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, killing all life on the fields except that one crop. The soil, in essence, dies, and the chemicals wash into nearby lakes, rivers and oceans.

And for us, the eaters, lack of biodiversity is, quite frankly, somewhat boring. In the book, Pollan visits an orchard in New York that has the world’s largest collection of apples trees — 2500 varieties from around the world. Talk about a gene pool! He describes the amazing diversity he finds there in a way that made me want to start similar safe havens for multitudes of varieties of every plant:

“I found apples that tasted like bananas, others like pears. Spicy apples and sticky-sweet ones, apples sprightly as lemons and others rich as nuts. I picked apples that weighed more than a pound, others compact enough to fit in a child’s pocket. Here were yellow apples, green apples, spotted apples, russet apples, striped apples, purple apples, even a near-blue apple. There were apples that looked prepolished and apples that wore a dusty bloom on their cheeks. Some of the apples had qualities that were completely lost on me but had meant the world to people once: apples that tasted sweeter in March than October, apples that made especially good cider or preserves or butter, apples that held their own in storage for half a year, apples that ripened gradually to avoid a surfeit or all at once to simplify the harvest, apples with long stem or short, thin skin or thick, apples that tasted sublime only in Virginia and others that needed a hard New England frost to reach perfection, apples that reddened in August, others that held off till winter, even apples that could sit at the bottom of a barrel for the six weeks it took a ship to get to Europe, then emerge bright and crisp enough to command a top price in London.”

I highly recommend this book if any of the above was interesting to you. And if it wasn’t, you should still give the book a try. Pollan is a very good writer looking at (what I find to be) an interesting subject from an even more interesting angle.

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