The Real Reason We Give Red Roses On Valentine's Day

Roses, everyone knows, are a symbol of love. That makes them the archetypical Valentine's Day gift, along with boxes of chocolates and maybe, if you want to be really corny about it, a teddy bear. But why roses in particular? Surely, any gift of flowers is romantic, right?

Many accounts of how roses came to be associated with Valentine's Day begin with stories from Greek mythology. In one tale, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, accidentally pricked her finger on the thorn of a white rose, turning it red, according to Reader's Digest. In another story, after Aphrodite's lover Adonis died, the goddess' tears fell on the earth and turned into roses. But there are lots of romantic Greek stories about flowers: when Adonis died, his blood was said to turn into anemone flowers, and hyacinths were formed by Apollo crying over his lover Hyacinth (via Greeker Than The Greeks). The real reason love is associated with roses dates to a romantic tradition in Victorian England.

Floral dictionaries and secret sentiments

Flowers have long had an allegorical meaning in the Western European imagination — in "Hamlet," for instance, Ophelia famously gives a crazed speech that hides her shocking implications behind floral symbolism (via Huntington Botanical). But the idea of "a language of flowers" dates back to a misunderstood idea by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of a British ambassador to Turkey, in the 1700s, according to Reader's Digest. "Lady Montagu wrote letters home enthusing over a version of Turkish 'flower language,' or the process of assigning certain symbolic meanings to certain flowers, but she seems to have misinterpreted this local custom, which had more to do with rhyming words than the significance of the flowers themselves," said Sara Cleto, a folklorist, to the magazine.

In the 1800s, this "flower language" entered the mainstream. Floral dictionaries became popular in the 19th century, and though many flowers had "definitions" that varied from dictionary to dictionary, roses became well-known symbols of love. The exact sentiment often varied by the color or varietal of the flower — though "The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems" (1857) lists full red roses as being symbolic of "beauty," deep red roses meant "bashful shame" (via Public Domain Review).

Perhaps the biggest reason, however, that roses are popular gifts on Valentine's Day is that they are hardy flowers that travel well (via Mental Floss) — an important consideration for a mid-February holiday.