Power to the potatoThe Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan 306pp, BloomsburyIn 1985 Henry Hobhouse published an important and original piece of historical writing called Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind. In 1999 Anna Pavord’s masterpiece, The Tulip, appeared, which even tulipomaniacs would agree said everything there was to say about tulips. Now Michael Pollan takes four plants – including the tulip and the potato, which was given a comprehensive going-over by Hobhouse – to give us what he calls a plant’s-eye view of the world. His book takes an imaginative leap into the plant world which fascinates, irritates and challenges in equal measure. His premise is that whereas we think we have domesticated and used plants to our own ends, it is in fact they who have used us as a means of survival. They have a problem in that they cannot move. They have therefore, over millions of years, evolved ways of fighting off predators and of reproducing themselves without stirring from one spot. So far so simple. But Pollan goes further. He attributes to plants extraordinarily sophisticated and manipulative ways of getting what they want. The apple gratifies our taste for sweetness, the tulip seduces us with its beauty, and marijuana tempts us into intoxication. Musing on his own embarrassing and abortive attempts to grow marijuana in his backyard, Pollan points out that in order to succeed in North America cannabis had to do two things. “It had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment.” He goes on to describe new hybrids with higher concentrations of THC (the plant’s principal psychoactive compound) than ever before. Cannabis has thrived, he says, on its taboo. He ends by attributing unexpected power to the potato: once it is genetically modified – and he has in a small way been experimenting with GM crops in his own garden – it gives us a sense of control over nature. Or does it? His book does not have the intellectual rigour of Hobhouse’s social history. His ideas tumble over one another, sometimes wildly, but they are infectious. Unassumingly, he describes his book as “stories about Man and Nature”. They are stories that make you look to the future.