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Why Do We Give Red Roses on Valentine's Day?

This seems like a simple question, but it's actually quite complex. Are you asking why do we, in 2022, still buy roses on Valentine's Day? Are you asking why this became a tradition in the first place? Are you asking about why we give flowers in general or roses specifically? I'll do my best to answer all three of these questions, and more, so join me as we look at the variety of criss-crossing factors that led to this seemingly simple holiday tradition.

The Mythos of Roses

What’s the appeal of roses? It may sound a little blunt but think about it for a second, what sets roses apart from any other flower? Other flowers have their time in the spotlight for their respective holidays like tulips for Easter, mums for Mother’s Day, and poinsettias for winter holidays. Yet none of them have the same year round appeal as roses. So what gives? What’s the excitement around roses specifically?

Well, there are a few answers to this. Let’s start with the basic one: roses are aesthetically pleasing. Sure you could argue all flowers are, but roses specifically have this nice round shape made of round, colorful petals that form an almost-but-not-quite symmetry. Psychologically speaking, this is a lot of the things humans like. We tend to see round things as more calming and pleasing, we like things that are colorful but not too colorful because these things are usually edible and tasty like fruit without being dangerous like a brightly colored snake or poisonous frog, and even in the faces of other humans it is considered attractive to be nearly symmetrical but unsettling to be perfectly symmetrical. Roses have it all, plus that pleasant but not overwhelming scent to top it off. They also have rather interesting leaves with serrated edges that catch our eye among all the flowers with your standard oval shaped leaves with smooth edges, and if you like a little dichotomy then all of these good pleasant things are paired with the dastardly looking thorns that roses possess. You could even argue the thorns add an element of temptation: you really like this flower but it won’t let you have it without a fight!

To go with the psychological reasoning there’s also the biological one: roses are hardy suckers! There are over 100 different species of roses in the world, with native roses found across Asia, Europe, North America, and northwestern Africa. They’re mostly temperate plants but can survive both heat and cold, a variety of soil types, and more dry or more wet conditions. Garden roses, the ornamental type we use for your typical bouquet, are also hybrids of different rose species so they can survive an even wider range of conditions. If you’ve ever had a rose bush in your yard that you wanted to get rid of then you know it’s almost a fool’s errand. They are resilient with tough stems, climbing branches, and big thorns, plus the shrub kind can grow up to 10 feet tall (not including when they climb) and will come back like a weed if you don’t dig them out all the way. This in turn makes them easy to grow in large numbers, plus they can hold up to more abuse during transport, a very important quality to have back before careful packaging and refrigerated trucks were a thing to keep fresh flowers alive during the trip from greenhouse to bouquet.

Lastly, there’s also the poetic appeal to roses. Many a poem has talked about these flowers, whether that’s due to their psychological appeal, the dichotomy of a pretty flower with dangerous thorns, or just being a common plant. It could be argued that the modern obsession with roses started with Greek Mythology though.

In one myth, Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, was in love with Adonis, a mortal man so handsome that he caught the eye of multiple goddesses. Some of the other goddesses who were jealous of Aphrodite and some of the gods who were jealous of Adonis conspired together and had Adonis killed by a boar while he was out hunting. Aphrodite cried over his body and her tears mixed with his blood on the ground. From the mix, the first red rose bush sprung up.

Now many flowers have similar origin stories in Greek Mythology. Daffodils (also called narcissus for this reason) were believed to have first sprung up from the body of Narcissus when he withered away from refusing to move, eat, or drink after becoming infatuated with his own reflection. Crocus flowers are named after the mortal lover of the god Hermes, who was accidentally killed by Hermes while the two men were playing discus and Crocus was hit in the head; Hermes, in his grief, turned Crocus into the flowers. There are even alternate versions of the Adonis and Aphrodite myth where instead of roses, it was red windflowers that sprung up instead. But none of these have quite gripped the imagination like the thought of red roses growing from where lovers’ blood and tears mixed together.

As a result of this myth, roses were considered a symbol of Aphrodite. Almost all of Aphrodite’s symbols have become longstanding romantic imagery such as doves, swans, pearls, and the color red. Aphrodite herself is the source of the word aphrodisiac, and in Roman Mythology she was called Venus. Aphrodite also had a constant companion in fellow god Eros, the root word for erotic, and Venus had the equivalent in Cupid. The Romans often depicted Cupid as a young cherubic boy with angel wings, and both mythologies showed him carrying a bow and arrows. Anyone struck by his arrows wasn’t wounded but instead fell hopelessly in love. Seeing a trend between these ancient symbols of the Goddess of Love and things we associate with Valentine’s Day?

The Origin of Saint Valentine's Day

Ok so now we understand the appeal of roses a bit more, let’s cover the other half of this equation: Valentine’s Day. Why did this holiday start and who is this Saint Valentine fellow it’s named after?

As with most modern holidays, there’s potentially a pagan origin to Valentine’s Day. In ancient Roman times, a festival called Lupercalia was held on February 15th every year. I’ll keep the details PG-13, but there were sacrifices of male goats, nudity, and men running through the streets hitting willing women with strips of goat hide all in the name of honoring Lupercus, a God of Fertility. Interestingly, another alleged aspect of the festival was random matchmaking: names of young women were put into a jar and men would draw a name at random. The men would partner up with their drawn women and stay together for the duration of the festival, but many would end up staying together for a full year until the next Lupercalia or even get married. Over time, Lupercalia was increasingly dialed back and lost popularity until it was outright banned by the pope in 496 AD.

Don’t be too sad about Lupercalia though, because the next phase of this story also gets bloody. Roman Emperor Claudius II, also known as Claudius the Cruel for reasons that are about to become apparent, decided that men weren’t joining the army in high enough numbers for his liking because they had things like marriages and families that made them not want to go die in war. As a result, Claudius outlawed all marriages and engagements in Rome. One Priest Valentine thought this was pretty messed up, so he went behind the emperor’s back and still married couples in secret. Claudius eventually found out and Valentine was sentenced to be beaten and beheaded. The date of his execution ended up being February 14th, around the year 270 AD. It hasn’t been proven that there’s a direct link between the two holidays, but this does put the anniversary of a Christian priest’s execution in a great spot to take over pagan, frowned upon Lupercalia 200 years later, doesn’t it?

Or that’s the story at least. It turns out there were quite a few Priest Valentines at the time and at least three are each separately attributed to the date of February 14th. Which one in particular was the Saint Valentine we may never know now, but it still stands that when Lupercalia was banned by the pope, St. Valentine’s Day was quite the convenient opportunity to turn a pagan festival into a Christian holiday. Some Christians, in fact, specifically do not celebrate Valentine’s Day because of the potential pagan connection.

Now as far as a commercialized Valentine’s goes, that took until the 1800s. Valentine’s Day was already celebrated as a romantic and fertility-boosting holiday, either due to its replacement of Lupercalia or due to other reasons now lost to time, but in the 1800s the Victorians started to take things more seriously. Special stationary for writing Valentine’s Day notes was introduced in the 1820s and by the 1840s commercialized cards started to become the hot new thing. Gift giving and general elaborate displays were already a staple of Valentine’s Day by this point, so it was simply time for the market to take advantage of these symbols, and also tap into this up and coming trend called floriography.

Giving Flowers as a Sign of Love

Floriography is the “language of flowers”. Basically, each and every flower has its own assigned meaning and through floriography you create messages using select flowers in bouquets. You may have heard of this before, and it was all the rage in the 1800s.

In the Victorian era, it became increasingly frowned upon to make any sort of open romantic gesture. It was not just illegal but worse, ill-mannered, to discuss flirting or affairs around other people. If that sounds a little stifling because where else do you meet new folks if not for around other people, you’d be correct. And so, workarounds started springing up. One of these was floriography, which allowed people to communicate out of sight and without a single word.

In the early/mid-1700s, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was married to the British ambassador to Turkey, wrote letters back to her friends in England about her time spent in Turkey. One of these letters included descriptions of how Turkish people would ascribe meanings to flowers, feathers, rocks, just about anything natural and use it to convey messages to others. She even called it “Turkish love letters”. There’s a better than good chance that she was misinterpreting or putting too much importance on what she was seeing as a British woman viewing Turkish society, but in true Victorian fashion by the late-1700s and early-1800s this idea had been taken and cranked up 5 notches.

Floriography caught on like wildfire. Countless guides were written that covered hundreds if not thousands of different meanings, with the meaning for the exact same flower often differing between different guides for added fun. The color of a flower, if it was in bloom or not, and even the specific placement of it could completely change its individual meaning. Single flowers were used for quick statements and yes-or-no questions while multiple flowers put together in a bouquet could convey longer, more detailed messages. This led to floriography as a crutch that Victorians could use to convey romantic interest in each other in secret. It also gave women something to do and study in a time when they were forbidden from doing and studying damn near anything. It was the same as having a secret code, with all the fun of making coded messages to send and deciphering ones sent to you.

Red roses, as you may have already guessed, meant “romantic feelings” in the floriography code, harkening back to their status as a symbol of Aphrodite. Thus, they were heavily used on their own and in bouquets meant to convey romantic intent. A single red rose was sent to confess early romantic feelings and ask if your crush was interested in you as well, while an entire bouquet of just red roses was seen as quite the strong message of love/desire at the time. Floriography and the budding commercialization of Valentine’s Day crossed paths, and from there the rest is history. Bouquets of red roses were sent on Valentine’s Day for a double dose of “I fancy thee” in a time where public romantic gestures were strongly discouraged, and now we’re finally set up for the modern version of this Valentine tradition.

But Why Red Roses Still?

Ok, so now we have the full backstory. But why are we still doing the red roses thing all the way in 2022? Again we come to a fork in how to answer this question. Let's start with the simple answers.

1. It's a tradition. That's it. Even if you don’t know the entire backstory, it's something we grew up with and see every year that has been going on for centuries. Humans like routine and familiar things so we continue the tradition. Doesn't get simpler than that.

2. Consumerism/Commercialization. This is the complaint we hear about every single holiday these days, but it's true. We're told “this is a thing people do and you should do it too”, or even “this is a thing people do and if you don't do it we are going to shame, humiliate, and embarrass you”. Boom. Now you want to do the thing. We're community animals by nature, if the rest of the community is doing something, we inherently think we should be doing that thing as well. If the rest of the community will ostracize and outcast us if we don't do that thing, then that's even worse and we're for sure going to do it now. This simplified explanation may seem extreme, but it's psychological and still affects you to some degree, even if you don't realize it.

And now for a more complex third answer: 3. It's still a way to pick out potential suitors. If you're rolling your eyes and saying you're above deciding if you love someone over if they get you roses on Valentine's Day or not, let me explain and maybe show you that you actually aren't.

Roses aren't cheap leading up to Valentine's Day. This is intentional of course, but no less a fact of life. Bouquets of a dozen red roses can increase in price by 58% between August (the lowest prices) and February (the highest prices) every year. And flowers can't be put on layaway or purchased during a sale months ahead of time. They have to be bought when they are fresh, and that's also when they are at their full, artificially inflated price. If you're looking for someone who's well-off financially, and no judgment here, this can be a great indicator. If you want those fresh dozen red roses on the 14th of February, they're going to have to buy them at full mark up. Think less about the Victorians making secret messages through flower language and more about using a bouquet as a modern status symbol. Simply put, It's a show of status to be able to get that perfect, fresh bouquet of red roses on Valentine's Day.

There's also the aspect of effort. Roses not only aren't cheap, they also aren't easy to get come February. Even if wealth isn't necessarily something you're looking for in a romantic relationship, surely you want someone who will put effort towards you, right? Let's say you have 2 romantic interests and you want to pick 1 of them to pursue long term. Interest A knows you're big on Valentine's Day and all of the traditional fanfare. They know you wake up on February 14th and anticipate a dozen fresh red roses, a box of chocolates, and a handwritten card. Interest A plans weeks in advance to make sure you have the perfect bouquet of red roses, your favorite chocolates, and a name-brand card hand delivered to you before noon. Interest B either doesn't know that you like Valentine's Day at all (even if you bring it up all the time) or knows and doesn't care. You're lucky to get a text from them on the day of, forget any sort of gift. And if they do get you a gift, maybe it's something you didn't ask for or expressly don't like. Are you going to pick the romantic interest that pays attention to what you like, acknowledges it, and acts to make sure you receive it or are you going to pick the one that doesn't listen or actively ignores your likes and wants? I know which one I'd go with.

That's not to say you have to ascribe to every Valentine's Day tradition of course, or even like the holiday itself. If you want someone to go all out and buy you a hundred red roses and the biggest teddy bear ever made, great! If you'd prefer a single stem of a less popular flower and a sweet text, great! If you just want to ignore that February 14th happens at all and spend it with friends instead, great! But beyond the simple fact that traditions are traditions and we are prone to continue them, these are just some of the reasons Valentine's Day is still going strong today and why we give red roses on this specific day each year, even all the way in 2022.


About the Author: Rachel Carroll

Rachel, a lifelong Reno/Sparks local, grew up with a love of rocks, nature, and outer space. Inspired by NASA's work in exogeology, she went to Truckee Meadows Community College to earn an Associate of Science, Geoscience Emphasis degree. Though she has interest in other worlds, she has dedicated herself to improving this one by working with local non-profit organizations on social media outreach projects to help get the word out about the great things these groups accomplish. Rachel's service term is ending this week and she hopes you enjoy this final blog post from her!


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