GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Film: "Botany of Desire"


Flowers. Trees. Plants. We've always thought that we've controlled them. But what if, in fact, they have been shaping us? Using this provocative question as a jumping off point, The Botany of Desire takes viewers on an exploration of our relationship with the plant world – seen from the plants' point of view.

Image of the cover of the book The Botany of Desire.
Credit: PBS

School children often learn about the mutually beneficial relationship between honeybees and flowers. To make their honey, the bees collect the flowers' nectar and in the process spread pollen, which enables the flowers to reproduce. The Botany of Desire proposes that people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. "We don't give nearly enough credit to plants," says Pollan. "They've been working on us – they've been using us – for their own purposes."

The Botany of Desire examines this relationship by telling the stories of four plants that ensured their survival and expanded their habitat by satisfying our most basic yearnings. Connecting fundamental human desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control with the plants that satisfy them – the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato – The Botany of Desire intends to show that we humans don't stand outside the web of nature; we are very much a part of it.

The program begins with Pollan in a California garden and sets off to roam the world – from the potato fields of Idaho and Peru to the apple orchards of New England and Kazakhstan; from a medical marijuana hot house to the lush tulip gardens of the Netherlands.

Click here for further information regarding The Botany of Desire.

The Penn State University Libraries provides access to stream the film. To access the film, head to and enter "The Botany of Desire" into the search field. Then select the online film option (should be the second item) and follow the links to view the film.

As you watch the film, consider the following questions:

  • Pollan asks us to reconsider who has been domesticating whom in the co-evolution of humans and plants. Can you imagine ways in which your own daily life has been shaped and influenced by the plants (and animals!) that you encounter, consume, and have a relationship with?
  • What ideas of nature do you see Pollan agreeing or disagreeing with? (Think back to the different conceptions of nature discussed in the Cronon reading.)
  • Why is it important to think seriously about the agency of plants, and of nature?
  • How do you think the ideas presented in this film might help to empower or inform conservation efforts?
  • What kinds of agriculture and food systems can you think of (including examples from around the world presented in the film) that recognize and protect plant diversity?