Take a moment to think of every plant in your household. Perhaps you have some basil in a pot on your windowsill, or a vase of flowers on your table. Think of the grass in your yard and every tree. Think of the fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator, or the lemons and bananas on your counter. Who is in charge of the relationship between you and these plants? You may think you are in control of these plants, but a documentary by Michael Pollan reveals otherwise. Team AP Bio recently watched Botany of Desire, which covers the relationship humans have with four different plants: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. The study of each of these plants reveals that plants have actually used humans and catered to their desires in order to spread and grow.
The first plant covered in the documentary was the apple tree.
Apples have long been a part of American culture and are a staple fruit in most any household. The apple actually has its roots in central Asia, in Kazakhstan. The apple tree eventually spread to Europe, and then the Americas. Apple seeds contain lots of different genes, so each new apple tree produces a different kind of apple, which is a great way for apples to maintain biodiversity. However practical this kind of genetic diversity may be for apples, humans prefer to be able to have lots of one kind of plant. If a certain kind of apple growing on the tree is preferable, humans can recreate this exact tree through a process called grafting, where the bud of an apple tree is inserted into a young apple tree to produce the same kinds of apples.
The tale of a young man named Johnny Appleseed is a famous one, but is actually based on a true story. Johnny Chapman traveled America, planting apple seeds wherever he went. Rather than planting trees to create a wholesome, green environment, Chapman was searching for the perfect apple to make cider. Apples were not the same sweet variety we know today, but rather a bitter fruit that was not suitable for eating. However, they were perfect for making cider, which was preferable to water that could possibly be contaminated. As alcohol became shunned, people began to view apples as an evil fruit. Cider was not the only function of an apple, however. People began to search for the perfectly sweet apple, which they could then graft and grow by the masses simply to eat. Apples could essentially use humans changing needs and desires to make them do their bidding. Because of humans’ desire for more apples, apple trees were able to spread further and faster than if they were on their own. Because of their natural biodiversity, apple trees were able to cater to people’s changing needs for sweeter apples. We are essentially pollinators working for the apple tree.
The next plant studied was the tulip, a signature flower of the Netherlands but found all over the world.
Tulips, like apples, originated in central Asia, where it was revered in many ancient cultures. Things were different, however, when the tulip reached the Netherlands. Tulip mania gripped the nation as people sought to breed rare varieties. Tulips became a symbol of wealth and status, and anybody who was anybody had tulips growing in their front yard. The most prized kind of tulip, the Semper Augustus, was a pure white with a splash of bright red, and the bulbs eventually sold at a price equal to that of a town house today. Little did the Dutch know that this design was actually caused by a flower virus.
Today, tulips farmers continue to grow thousands of flowers on their tulip farms and breed flowers to find new combinations. Because of tulips’ ability to constantly change and keep humans’ attention, they are able to thrive and make us do their bidding of planting them by the masses.
Perhaps the most prominent example of how plants control humans is through cannabis, or marijuana.
Like apples and tulips, cannabis has been a part of many different cultures. Smoking this plant was not always as looked down on as it is today, but time made a devil of the cannabis plant. Scientists investigated the molecule in marijuana that gets humans to the high that makes cannabis so desirable. The molecule, THC, fits perfectly with a receptor in the human brain. But why would a plant chemical molecule be perfectly fitted to a receptor in our brains? As it turns out, THC has a very similar, nearly identical, structure to a chemical made in our brains that allows people to forget information. As of now, cannabis is being used to investigate possible drugs to treat PTSD.
Cannabis is a fickle creature, and requires a lot of attention to grow. Not only does the plant have humans under its control by making a molecule people desire and seek out, but the plant also makes humans take care of them in very precise and attentive ways. Two cannabis growers described how the plants require very specific care. Not only that, but when cannabis was outlawed, humans genetically modified cannabis plants to be able to grow indoors, all because of the fascination that humans have developed with the high marijuana provides.
The potato is the final plant examined in this documentary.
Potatoes were originally cultivated in Peru, where many different types of potatoes were grown to ensure that in the event of a virus or disease, there would be other potatoes that could grow. When the Spanish brought potatoes to Europe, most countries grew only one variety. This proved a fatal mistake in the Irish Potato Famine, which killed millions when a potato disease targeted the only type of potato grown in Ireland. In the U.S. today there is another instance of monoculture in potatoes. One type of potato is mass produced and sold mainly to fast food companies to make french fries, which poses a problem when there is a type of insect that eats that kind of potato. When the potato beetle struck, scientists created a genetically modified version of the potato that included a protein potato beetles could not digest and eventually killed them. The human relationship with potatoes is another example of humans believing they control plants, when, in reality, at any given moment an entire crop could die. Plants, often thought of as such simple organisms, hold far more power over us than we would like to admit.
Apples. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/139_1962098/1/139_1962098/cite. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.
Marijuana plants, Cannabis sativa. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/132_1208991/1/132_1208991/cite. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.
“Potato.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato.
Tulip field. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/132_1239934/1/132_1239934/cite. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.