Love it or loath it Valentine’s Day is almost upon us and supermarket shelves are stocked with cards, chocolates and of course roses ready for the big day.

Roses are really important to us here in South Cliff Gardens, our own rose garden is one of our prized features and a popular place for people to quite literally sit back and smell the roses. But how did the red rose become one of the most potent, enduring and easily recognisable symbols of romantic love and such a feature of modern Valentine traditions? To discover that we need to take a trip back to the classical world.

It’s no coincidence that it’s the blood red rose that has become emblematic of love in Western culture. In Greek mythology Aphrodite took a human lover Adonis, when he was slain whilst out hunting by the God Aries who had taken the form of a bull, Adonis blood and the tears falling from the eyes of a bereft Aphrodite as she held her dying paramour in her arms are said to have mingled and as they landed on the soil beneath the stricken mortal red roses bloomed, a lasting symbol of their love.

When the Roman’s later synchronized Aphrodite with their own goddess Venus, they also kept the rose as their symbol of love and beauty, wealthy Roman women would pamper themselves with rose baths and scattered bed chambers with their petals.

On the 14th February the Roman’s also celebrated Juno the Queen of the Gods and also Goddess of women and marriage, young men and women were paired through a lottery to spend the festival day together and many marriages resulted from these matches.   

We have the Roman’s to thank (or blame) for the existence of Valentine’s Day and once again it’s a story steeped in bloodshed. Emperor Claudius II executed two men who shared the name Valentine on 14th February in different years during his reign. Claudius wanted to raise an army of single men who would not be tied to wives and families.  One of the men he had killed, a Christian Priest, met his end as the result of defying a direct order from the Emperor banning new marriages for young men in Rome, he performed ceremonies in secret and paid with his life.  It was such acts of martyrdom that lead the Catholic Church to canonise the men and create St Valentine’s Day in their honour.

As to how the rose has endured in Western culture as a symbol of love we need to pay a visit to the Victorian era. In an age when outward displays of emotion were frowned upon flowers took on a deeper meaning and gifting roses was seen as an expression of passionate love and intimacy.

Roses as a symbol of love do not only have their origins in Western mythology. Laxmi wife of Vishnu and goddess of fortune and prosperity in Hindu tradition was said to have been created from 1008 small red rose petals and 108 large, Hindus continue to associate the rose with love and romance.  

Whilst in Ancient Arabic mythology a nightingale is said to have fallen deeply in love with a white rose but when the bird pressed its body to the flower a thorn pierced its heart turning the rose red with its blood.  

Today choosing the perfect roses on Valentine’s Day can be a surprisingly thorny issue as any professional florist could probably advise. The number, shade and even maturity of the rose or roses you present to your beloved convey differing messages. A budding rose unsurprisingly signifies a relationship in its early stages of courtship whilst a bouquet of 10 red roses says you have found your perfect love. If you’re in the dog house this Valentine’s Day then 15 red roses offer an apology in lieu of words and if you’re feeling really ostentatious then a mega bouquet of 100 roses shows utter devotion.  Watch out for the color you choose as well, if you are feeling romantic then select bright blooms but if you’re looking to convey undying love then burgundy is the way to go.  

Gemma Alexander

Community Engagement Officer


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