The Botany of Desire

by Michael Pollan

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What is Pollan's main point in chapter 2 of The Botany of Desire?

Pollan's main point in Chapter 2 is that flowers are more important and influential than they might seem at first.

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Chapter 2 of The Botany of Desire showcases the tulip and explains its place in Western history and economics.

Michael Pollan begins chapter 2 of this book by explaining his own personal connection to the tulip, which was the first flower he ever planted. Later, when he was older and came to consider himself a young farmer, he found that he had no time for flowers anymore. He saw them as less important than other plants.

From there, he goes back to Holland in the 1600s and explains how tulips completely changed the course of the economy in Holland during a three-year span from 1634 to 1637. He explains that he wants to juxtapose these ideas: his "boyish view of the pointlessness of flowers and the unreasonable passion for them that the Dutch briefly epitomized." Pollan then reminds readers that people have always been fascinated by beautiful flowers and ponders why that might be.

Ultimately, that's the main point of this chapter. Flowers are more important than they might seem at first. They attract animals, encourage pollination, fascinate the human mind, and inspire art. They're specialized to be eaten and spread by certain animals to certain places. A person considering the importance of various plants would be remiss if they didn't give due attention and respect to flowers and, particularly, to the tulip.

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In the second chapter, Pollan examines the evolutionary history of the tulip, which was once considered so exquisite that it created a form of fanaticism called Tulipomania in the 1600s in Holland. He uses the tulip as an example of the human desire for beauty. Pollan examines why this flower was considered, along with a few other varieties, the quintessence of beauty. His point is that the flower spoke to the Dutch need for color and order, as Holland is a monochromatic land. The tulip is a symmetrical plant that is in line with the Dutch preference for order. However, at the time, occasional flowers were marked by an outburst of color that was actually caused by a virus.

Pollan explains how humans and the tulip worked in symbiosis in the flower's evolutionary path. After realizing that the color in a tulip was caused by a virus, growers worked to get rid of the virus and reduced the tulip to less colorful varieties.

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As with the other chapters in this book, Pollan uses history and descriptions of historical events to explore his main ideas. Based upon his theory that plants develop qualities to encourage humans to help them reproduce and flourish, the quality that tulips developed is beauty. Pollen discusses  the runaway popularity of tulips in 17th century Holland, in particular a mid-century "tulip mania" that culminated in enormous sums of money (the equivalent of thousands of dollars, sums greater than the cost of fine houses in Amsterdam) being spent on a single bulb or bloom. The distinctive colors, shapes and appearances of various tulips achieved via hybridizing can yield many rare and wonderful flowers. The more unusual or beautiful the flower, the more rare and valuable it was considered to be, and the financial speculation that resulted during this three year craze (1634-1637) caused widespread financial ruin. The main point Pollan makes is that the effect of flowers' beauty upon human beings can cause them to act in dramatic ways, and in some cases this behavior can help insure the flower's survival and proliferation. Holland is still considered the tulip capital of the world.

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