The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

I have a love-hate relationship with Pollan. He writes well, but for popular science I often find it a bit lighter on science than I’d like. As with many writers who fall somewhere between journalism and pop science, you often get a long story about visiting a person and place instead of a detailed description of the science at hand.

Then again, I have never failed to enjoy one of his books. This one is about plants that have so deeply satisfied human desires (marijuana, apples, potatoes, and tulips) that humans have cultivated them extensively. The conceit here is that the plants have tapped our desire as a means of reproduction. This isn’t a new idea, and I suspect it wasn’t new in 2001, but it is very well explored. And, like all Pollan’s books, it has an engaging structure as it moves from topic to topic – tulips are beauty, apples are sweetness, potatoes are control, and marijuana is intoxication.

In short, I enjoyed it, and to the extent I have criticisms, they are basically unfair. I would prefer more depth in a book that is supposed to read more like an adventure travelogue of food. If that sounds like something you’d like, I recommend it.

The Botany of Desire (Pollan)

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World

I really enjoyed this book. Wohlleben works in forest management, and has written a wonderful book on all the weird ways in which trees adapt to their environments and communicate with each other (using chemical signals, electric signals, etc.). It contains a ton of strange info – for example, apparently some bug-infested trees will chemically signal parasitoids to come eat the bugs that are harming the tree. The author also claims that old trees are more disease resistant because they can communicate with each other about what pathogens have entered the area.

Wohlleben occasionally gets a little sappy and mystical about forestry, but all of his serious claims are either backed by scientific evidence or have a disclaimer that they’re just something he suspects is true.

The Hidden Life of Trees (Wohlleben)