Humans aren't the only creatures on the planet who get horny. Plants can be sex-nuts too. In The Botany of Desire, cannabis growers separate male from female plants. The frustrated ladies produce fulsome mounds of sticky resin, eager to attract pollen. Then the growers harvest the resin for, ahem, medical purposes.
Cannabis is a complex plant that has fascinated us for centuries. This film explores that fascination from the plant's point of view. Interviewee Michael Pollan hypothesizes that in order to propagate itself, the plant has allied itself with our race. It uses its psychotropic properties to make us go to extraordinary lengths — even risking incarceration — to grow it.
Pollan compares us to bees, which unwittingly help plants spread as they go about their business. Along with cannabis, he looks at tulips, apples, and potatoes. We desire each of these four plants for different reasons: tulips are pretty, apples are sweet, marijuana allows us to momentarily escape reality, and potatoes make good French fries.
Pollan's investigation is part history lesson, part travelogue, part flight of fancy. He traces apple trees back to central Asia, in the country now known as Kazakhstan. Apples were slowly introduced to Europe and China through trade routes, eventually reaching the New World. The fruit became especially popular here because it could be used to make hard cider. More recently, a few "brands" of apple have been marketed because of their look or taste, leaving their bitter rivals to dwindle.
In another segment, Pollan takes us back to a period of "tulip fever" in 1630s Netherlands, when the price of a single Semper Augustus bulb sold for the equivalent of $15 million in today's money. The tulip had adapted and mutated to become the most desirable flower in Europe, and if a bulb was scarce enough, speculators could drive its price sky high. When the bubble burst, the economy tanked. This was hardly the plant's fault, but Dutch tulip bashers still vented their frustrations on any unlucky liliaceae they came across. Again, not a great win for the plant, but tulips have made a comeback since. (Cue glorious crane shots of rows of Dutch flowers, all grown according to color and type then shipped across the world to satisfy our desire for exquisite sights and scents.)
The Botany of Desire is based on Michael Pollan's 2001 book of the same name. It looks at our world from the plants' point of view in a clever, entertaining fashion. There are lots of attractively photographed images and the general tone of the film is friendly and informative.
About half an hour is devoted to each subject, with the author appearing as an enthusiastic interview subject instead of presenting his ideas directly to the audience. This gives Botany more of a TV documentary feel. Its caché is raised by Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, who narrates the film and helps the story flow. That flow is only lost when director Michael Schwarz strays from the busy bee analogy and touches on other aspects of the plants.
For example, we're told that cannabis inspired the discovery and research of the brain's own "marijuana," anandamide. This effects appetite, pain, and memory. It's interesting stuff and fine for a book that has room to meander, but in an overlong film like this one, a tighter focus would only improve it. The digressions detract from Pollan's point — other species may not have conscious strategies but they can be ingenious, and they have made great achievements. Together we are part of a web of life. Whether it's by limiting varieties of apples, outlawing cannabis, or trashing tulips, the evolutionary votes we cast effect the world around us in profound ways.