Michael Pollan is the much-celebrated, much-discussed
author of many books that explore the relationship
between humans and what we consume, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His latest book is This Is Your Mind on
Plants. It explores the relationship between humans and three
plant products that have shaped human culture and history:
caffeine, mescaline, and opium.
Is it fair to say that gardening is your spiritual practice?
It’s one of them, definitely. Gardening is where I engage
with other species. I don’t have pets now, and that would
be another way to do it. For me, the garden is where I
either confront or cooperate with the species we share
this world with.
When did you shift your perspective to a plant’s-eye view of the world?
I wrote a book with that in the title: The Botany of Desire: A
Plant’s-Eye View of the World. But that was before I actually
experienced the plant’s view in an emotional or spiritual
way. When I wrote that book, I had an intellectual sense
that plants have a point of view—that plants have their own
interests. Through coevolution, plants work on us as we
work on them. When we mow the lawn, for example, we’re
doing the grass’s bidding because grasses want sun and they
can’t take down trees, and we’re very good at preventing
trees from growing. So, in that sense, when you’re mowing
the lawn, the grasses are using you as much as you’re using
them. This is how coevolution works. But all of that was an
intellectual conceit. I didn’t feel the presence of plants.
For me, the garden is where
I either confront or cooperate
with the species we share
this world with.
Are you talking about conversing with plants?
No. That’s not what I mean. You have to be careful with the language. I don’t think plants are sentient. They’re not
conscious the way we are. But they do have agency. On their
own timescale, they are reacting, and they have intelligence.
They deal with changes in their environment. They either
adapt to it or change it. But it was not until I did psychedelics in my garden that I saw plants as having a kind of
How did you get into psychedelics?
I’d had the experiences of awe in nature and things like that.
But I heard people talk about seeing God or merging with the
universe—mystical experiences of one kind or another. I’d
never experienced anything like that. I was kind of jealous.
Then I had such an experience during a guided high-dose
psilocybin trip that I described in my book How to Change
Your Mind. I saw myself explode into a cloud of little blue
sticky notes that were then spread out on the ground like a coat of paint—yet I was still completely aware. What fol-
lowed was an amazing experience of a piece of music where I
essentially merged with it. I merged with the cello. I merged
with the composer, merged with the player. There was just
no difference between me and this music. And I realized that
connection is a key to spiritual experience.
For me, spirituality isn’t about the supernatural. (I know
for some people it is.) And it isn’t about transcending the
material world. For me, it’s about transcending the ego—and
what can happen when you let those walls come down. The
ego is a fortress, and when that goes away, the potential
arises for profound connection. It could be a sense of love.
It could be a sense of bonding with nature. I’ve definitely
experienced that. The irony is that we usually feel we’re not
in nature. We humans talk about having a relationship with
nature as if we are separate from it. What a crazy idea that
is! But that’s how we put it.
This brings us to your new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants,
and the moment you realized that opium poppies grow not
just in Afghanistan, but all around us.
That first part of the new book goes back to the summer
of 1996, after I read a short book from a small press called
Opium for the Masses. And like a lot of gardeners, I got curious. I love experiments in the garden and doing things I haven’t done before: things we normally go to the store for or, in this case, to the drug dealer. But after I ordered
and planted my poppy seeds, I discovered that the DEA was
quietly cracking down on gardeners who were doing exactly
what I was doing. They arrested the author of Opium for the
Masses for possessing opium poppies that he bought at a florist shop in Seattle. That was quite amazing—and terrifying.
When I finished my article for Harpers, which described
how you make opium tea and how the tea makes you feel,
lawyers advised me not to publish that part of it. Some
lawyers advised me not to publish even the fact that I was
growing opium poppies because it is illegal to grow the flowers with the intent to manufacture opium. Ironically, that
intent was proven by my ownership of a copy of Opium for
the Masses. So, I had to take out those passages for the magazine. For this new book, I tracked down those missing pages
and restored them for two reasons: One was that the statute
of limitations had passed. I was safe legally. The other was
that the political environment around drugs had changed.
It’s hard to imagine the government cracking down on some
gardeners growing a couple opium poppy plants today.
Are opium poppies still available in flower shops?
Yes, they are. Back when the DEA was calling or visiting seed
companies and saying, “You shouldn’t sell these seeds, even
though it’s perfectly legal to sell them,” most companies
changed the name of the seeds. So yeah, you can find them.
It takes a little doing, but they’re out there.
How many potential hallucinogens do you have hiding in your garden?
Nothing illegal. I have San Pedro, a mescaline-producing
cactus. It’s not as well-known as peyote, but much easier
to grow, and I’ve built up quite a collection since I’ve been
working on the book. They’re quite beautiful, and they’re
perfectly legal—until you start brewing them as tea. Then
you’re “manufacturing a narcotic.” One of the many sur-
prises in getting into all this is that I now see San Pedro
all over Berkeley—and very often I see them hacked off,
suggesting they’re being harvested.
What else do you have?
I am growing poppies again, but I have no intention of
making tea or laudanum. Now I’m just growing it as most
gardeners do: strictly as an incredibly beautiful plant. And I
have cannabis, which is now legal in California. It’s thriving
in a pot in my garden. And I have things like wormwood
artemisia, which is made into absinthe, and supposedly is
psychoactive. I also have Datura, which is a hallucinogen, or
deliriant, actually. I don’t use it for that.
I like having psychoactives in my garden. I think it’s a
dimension of gardening we’ve lost. I think our gardens are generally too benign. We have flowers and we have fruits and
vegetables, but we don’t grow a lot of poisons. We don’t grow
a lot of psychoactives. We’re more concerned with the beauty
of plants than their power, and I’m very interested in their
Why are there so many psychoactive plants?
Well, plants can’t move fast. So if something wants to attack
them, they have to figure out another kind of defense. And the defense that many plants have come up with is to
produce alkaloids, chemical compounds that either poison
mammals and insects or otherwise discourage them or
discombobulate them. You might think that straightforward
poison would be the way to go. And these are poisons at a
high dose. But my sense is that plants realize that killing
your pest is not the best strategy: If you kill your pest,
you essentially select for resistant members of the pest population, which breed and grow very quickly. Farmers
understand this really well.
People don’t feel
caffeine. What’s so
amazing is that you need
a chemical to feel more
Some plants use their chemical defenses to ruin the
appetite of the pest. For example, the caffeine in coffee
diminishes your appetite. Another strategy for the plant is to sufficiently confuse the pest by creating tumult in its
mind—disorienting it, so it forgets where you are. I learned
this years ago when I had a catnip plant in my vegetable
garden for my cat, Frank. Every evening in the summer,
when I was going down to the vegetable garden to harvest something for dinner, Frank would follow me in—and just
look at me. And I realized he wanted me to show him where
the catnip was. Every day he would get so high on catnip that
he would forget where he had seen it. That’s a very clever
strategy for that plant.
You write that some plants protect themselves with
attractants that create addiction. I didn’t realize that
caffeine withdrawal is now listed as a mental disorder in the
DSM-5. How long did you go without caffeine during your
research for this book?
I had about three months of complete caffeine abstention: no tea or coffee. And I was not very happy for a lot
of that time. I got through withdrawal after a week or so.
Nevertheless, I felt a real absence in my life.
Did the improved sleep make up for it?
I was sleeping like a teenager. That was the biggest benefit.
That and the sense of virtue I had—which was stupid.
There’s nothing virtuous about not drinking coffee. But
we’re Puritans. We feel that any addiction is a weakness of
character. When I told people that I’d completely given up
coffee, they were impressed.
You’re not going to do that again?
No, I won’t. But I do think there’s something to be said
for giving up things you like for periods of time. I love the
idea of Lent. When we quit, we learn how much we love something, or we learn that we don’t need it. It’s very hard
to understand the role of a chemical in your life that you
consume all the time unless you take a break from it. I heard
that from caffeine researchers: If you really want to under-
stand the role of caffeine in your life, you have to get off it.
So, it was a challenge. And I kind of liked that idea.
I didn’t realize that my first cup of coffee each morning is
about getting over the effects of caffeine withdrawal.
Yeah. With that first cup you’re just heading off what other-
wise is going to be a kind of miserable day, and you can feel
it happening. You would think the chemical would make
you feel more different than yourself, but when you have
that kind of dependence, you don’t feel normal until you’ve
gotten back to the baseline.
Before coffee and tea, you write that people drank alcohol all day.
We have to remember that for a long time, it was unsafe to
drink water. In America, everyone—including children—
was given hard cider at breakfast, lunch, and dinner because
the fermentation killed the microbes. Drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water. But coffee and tea were even
safer than that because the water was boiled and that killed
What surprised me was the dramatic effect the introduction of caffeine had in Europe. Before tea and coffee, people
were drunk a lot of the time, and that definitely diminishes
your productivity, makes you much more accident-prone,
and you don’t have clarity for things like double-entry
accounting. But under the influence of caffeine, you’re
better than normal. You’re more productive, more focused,
and you will work harder. Capitalism embraced coffee and
tea because it’s a wonderful tool to extract more value from
workers. That’s why we get paid for coffee breaks.
It’s very interesting to see what plants and compounds a society elevates as socially acceptable and condemns as
evil. It tells you a lot about that society. And I think it’s no
accident that in our society, caffeine is promoted. It happens
to contribute to the smooth workings of a complex capitalist
society. So is alcohol, probably because it numbs the pain of
a stressful life for a lot of people.