How this beautiful tradition came to be
Whether you arrive at the office to find a tall bouquet of roses at your desk, or you come home to find a trail of petals sprinkled out toward the bedroom, you probably know the romantic message conveyed.
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Valentine's Day is nearly synonymous with roses – and it has been for a long while.
But have you ever wondered why these specific flowers are so popular on this one particular day? And why is it that the red ones are considered more romantic than other colours of roses?
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The Story of Valentine's Day
Before understanding the history of roses and how they have become a universal symbol of romance, love and beauty, let's begin with the history of the day of love itself – Valentine's Day.
Ancient Romans historically celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13 to 15. It was a celebration for fertility and would include a matchmaking lottery, where young men would choose the name of a woman to be with during the celebration and perhaps afterward, according to a 2011 NPR report.
As for the name of the holiday, Emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine on February 14 on different years in the third century A.D. Their martyrdom was honoured by the Catholic Church during the celebration of St. Valentine's Day.
Roses in Retrospect
It was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-century wife of a British ambassador in the Ottoman Empire, who is most often credited with bringing a Turkish tradition to the women of England. In letters she sent home from the Ottoman Empire in 1716, later published in 1763, she described a secret language of flowers commonly used at the time by Turks as a way of assigning meaning to objects in order to send secret love letters.
We know now that Lady Montagu had misunderstood some of the original Turkish tradition known as “sélam” - the significance of objects like flowers are not symbolic but, rather, rhyme with a name.
Still, that didn't stand in the way of Victorian women catching on to the new hobby.
“There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather that has not a verse belonging to it: and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers,” wrote Lady Montagu.
From there, the practice caught on throughout England and Europe, and in 1819 Charlotte de Latour published Langage des fleurs, a dictionary for the language of flowers. This book defined the musk rose as a symbol for capricious beauty. There have been several editions of this dictionary since.
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When Roses Became Popular on V-Day
It wasn't only women who enjoyed the hobby of communicating through flowers. King Charles II of Sweden was also a fan of the art. Some say he was the person who brought the language of flowers to Europe after a trip to the Ottoman Empire, although he would have done so in the late 18th century, years after Lady Montagu's letters.
The rose's meaning expanded with each iteration and reflection on history, tradition and legend. It is also important to note that historically the rose was connected to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. According to Greek mythology, rose bushes grew from the ground from Aphrodite’s tears and the blood of her lover, Adonis. Even as Romans adapted the Aphrodite figure into their goddess Venus, they opted to keep the rose as a symbol of love and beauty.
As the romantic symbolism of the rose spread from the Ottoman Empire throughout Europe, botanists were working to develop new kinds of roses in the 19th century. Stephen Scanniello, curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, told this to Time Magazine.
At the same time, some of these botanists were doing this work in North America. The American Beauty rose (which was known as the “millionaire's rose” in the 1800s due to its high price point) was becoming quite popular in the northeastern states.
It is believed that this type of rose was shipped from New Jersey to Queen Victoria herself. As a symbol of passion, love and capricious beauty, as well as a luxury that even royalty enjoyed, it is clear why this became the flower of choice for Valentine's Day.
Modern Day Popularity of Roses
Even today, the American Beauty rose is still the one most commonly gifted to loved ones for Valentine's Day.
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According to the Society of American Florists, as of 2018, millions of people exchange the bloom to express their love, and more than 250 million are produced annually for Valentine's Day.
Today, you don't need to read a dictionary on the language of flowers to understand the secret messages a red rose communicates. Just a look and a sniff of a layered red bloom says, in any language, “I love you.”