The Surprisingly Bogus History of Roses on Valentine’s Day

The Surprisingly Bogus History of Roses on Valentine’s Day
Forget the romance, do you know the real reason roses have become synonymous with Cupid's day?
The Surprisingly Bogus History of Roses on Valentine's Day

Life for me around the flower-giving holidays is particularly challenging and frustrating. Part of this is because the woman I love hates roses.

“Why?” I ask her.

Why must she despise the one flower that’s always in vast abundance, the flower you can find at the last minute at the florist, at the grocery store, or peddled from a plastic bucket on the street corner? Why can’t she just love the flower that everyone gives to everyone for every holiday, especially Valentine’s Day?

She just shrugs. “I don’t know. I just don’t like them.”

“But…” I argue. “They are traditional. When you give someone a bouquet of roses for Valentine’s Day, you are giving a little piece of history. It’s a time-honored tradition with deep historical and cultural significance!”

Am I right? I’m right, right?

As it often turns out when my logic clashes with what my significant other’s gut feeling—nope, I’m not right at all.

To wit, roses are a tradition, but a relatively young one. On the grand historical timeline of Valentine’s Day celebrations—which spans centuries—the giving of roses falls close to the advent of manufactured greeting cards, both temporally and in spirit.

This is probably where my significant other’s ineffable dislike for roses stems from. To her, roses represent the commodification of sentiment. As we all know, the flurry of gift-giving, restaurant-booking, and grand-gesture-orchestrating is big business on St. Valentine’s Day. According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, Americans planned to spend an average of $146.84 on Valentine’s Day in 2016, reaching a record high total of $19.7 billion.

I have to applaud the industry. It couldn’t have been easy to take a tradition as personal and original as writing a love letter–in verse, no less–and adapting it to the assembly line for profit. But during the early 1800s, Valentine’s Day got swept up in the Industrial Revolution just like everything else. Charles Dickens famously wrote an account of the goings-on in “Cupid’s Manufactory,” in what amounted to a sometimes satirically-described 19th century equivalent to “How It’s Made” for pre-printed valentines. He notes how some of the artistry in the design is lost in the manufacturing process:

“The designs are highly finished and elaborately coloured, and some of them are really beautiful. They don’t look so well when they are printed, for much the same reason that a wood-engraving rarely comes up to the original drawing. They are spoilt by the heavy-handed process of colouring…”

Fast-forward to the 21st century and NPR’s Planet Money has done the same thing, but for Valentine’s Day roses. It turns out that the mass production has had similarly deleterious effects on the quality and originality of the flowers we give. In this episode, the Planet Money team does a fantastic deep dive into the “logistical miracles and wild risks behind getting red roses to your Valentine.” It’s quite a feat.

The thing about Valentine’s Day is that it’s supposed to coincide with early spring, as evidenced by the propensity of early poets’ to reference birds returning to mate around the holiday. But thanks to axial precession, February 14th now falls in the dead of winter. Not exactly the time of year when flowers are in bloom, north of the equator.

So, where do those buckets of red roses in come from? Columbia. Or Ecuador, or Kenya,or one of the other African or South American nations where plant engineers have been working year round to get roses to grow right on schedule for Valentine’s Day in the U.S. and Europe. They grow them by the millions, then they box them up and fly them to their destination. Putting that much mileage on a flower before it reaches your bouquet can be taxing. Luckily, roses can withstand the punishment.

Actually, luck has nothing to do with it. From the Planet Money episode:

Roses were the perfect choice because they are pretty much indestructible. We didn’t just set up this global transportation chain in order to get this traditional flower, roses. We actually started to like roses because they were optimized for the global transportation chain. They were the flower that worked best with the planes and the boxes and the farms.

Before we had the worldwide rose supply chain, “people on Valentine’s Day used to give things like sweet violets; these little, fragile flowers that were grown locally,” according to Planet Money.

Finding a seasonal, locally-grown flower to give your valentine in this day and age will take more effort. But it’s not impossible. And it’s totally worth it.

Where to Find Locally-sourced Flowers for Valentine’s Day

Buying local, seasonal flowers is something I have to do twice a year; my rose-hating better half’s birthday and Valentine’s Day are both in winter months. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

The first thing you should do is to simply ask your florist what’s available. Call one or two weeks in advance, since most florists get weekly deliveries and can special order items if you catch them at the right time. For me, this is hit or miss. I typically call and say: “I’m looking for something in season that’s not roses.” I’ve done this in January and gotten three different responses from three different florists—it depends on the philosophy and experience of the florist you’re talking to. One year, I got ranunculus for her and she loved them. The next year, I asked a florist for them and was told, “You don’t want those, they are too flimsy!” which sounds a lot like the pro-imported roses argument. Fortunately, I knew better by then and bought them anyway.

Looking for more resources for buying local, sustainable flowers, I stumbled upon SlowFlowers.com. It’s run by Debra Prinzing, who manages a community of 700+ flower farmers and floral designers who believe in domestic flower sourcing. The “Slow” in Slow Flowers is a nod to “Slow Food,” that close-to-home, low-carbon/transportation-footprint, seasonal and local mindset.

Debra’s put together two awesome resources that specifically address my problem of “what’s the best flower to buy for the winter holidays?” First is an infographic: Where Do Your Flowers Come From?

Infographic showing where flowers come from on Valentine's day

Where DO Your Flowers Come From?

The second is a Slow Valentine’s Day lookbook that features rose alternatives for some seasonal inspiration. I asked Debra for some more seasonal floral choices during the winter holidays, and she suggested flowering spring bulbs, greenhouse-grown ranunculus and anemones or blooming branches.

Flowering Spring Bulbs

Ranunculus

Anemones

Blooming Branches

All that being said, I understand that your girlfriend may still expect roses this year. If you think breaking personal tradition with a seasonal flower might not go over so well “(Happy Valentine’s Day! Didn’t get you roses, see PrimerMagazine.com, you’ll understand…”), look into getting some U.S.-grown roses. Ask your florist for locally-grown roses when you call, and if they insist no such thing exists, urge them to check for Oregon- or California-grown roses. According to the Certified American Grown program (americangrownflowers.org), there are about nine commercial rose growers remaining in the U.S., most of which are in California. There’s also one in Minnesota (Len Busch Roses) and one in Oregon (Peterkort Roses). Because of the climate, these flowers will be grown in greenhouses.

So, there you have it. This year, I challenge you to do as the original St. Valentine would have done and give a flower that’s grown locally and seasonally, rather than having something mass-produced flown in from afar. It’ll take a little more thought, a little more care, and a little more planning. But that’s what pulling off a truly romantic gesture is all about.

Good luck!

Jack Busch lives in the Pittsburgh area. He writes. He edits. And he encourages you to visit PotatoFact.com or follow him on Twitter.

  • Toro

    I would add lilies and orchids to the list.

    Roses are just so cliche

    • browneagle44 ロベルト

      Orchids are fantastic though! Definitely a win.

      My wife loves sunflowers, so anything involving those are always a win in my household 🙂

      • Toro

        yes, #1 should ALWAYS be what the GF/wife likes, no matter what