ANNAPOLIS – It was late on a chilly February afternoon and Jonerik Blank, a 20-year-old midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, was shopping for flowers from Sandi’s Flower Shop – joining all the swains young and old who were buying something for that special lady in the last days before Valentine’s Day.
He bought some daisies for the bouquet, he explained, because he thinks his girlfriend likes them. But he was sure to include some roses, too.
“I bought the roses because Valentine’s Day is coming up so I figured roses were a good idea,” he said. “They are a symbol of love and the most romantic flower.”
Those roses that Blank and millions of others find it prudent to send on Wednesday have been a necessary part of Valentine’s Day since the commercialization of the holiday in the 1850’s. But the rose’s own role as a powerful weapon in the wooing of the love struck goes back to the days of myth and legend, perhaps even before the written word made possible the literature and poems of love.
“It goes back to the realm of folklore, a time before people wrote things down but it is almost always associated with femininity,” said Michael Olmert, an English lecturer at the University of Maryland.
Last year 189 million roses were produced just for Valentine’s Day and more than half of all the flowers sold for the holiday were roses, said Jennifer Sparks, a spokeswoman for the Society of American Florists.
“Traditionally the red rose has signified love,” Sparks said. “They are a romantic flower.”
But the rose’s current association with romantic love and Valentine’s Day evolved slowly over time.
The rose grew as a wild flower in ancient Persia about 2,000 B.C. and perhaps even further back, said Katharine von Stackelberg, a professor at Brock University in Ontario Canada and an expert on ancient gardens.
It first became associated with pleasure during the Roman era because of its fragrance and high value. The Romans used it to party and entertain.
The host of a dinner party often crowned the guests with roses. During this era the flower symbolized pleasure in every sense – eating, laughing, drinking and flirting, Stackelberg said.
But Romans also used the rose to honor the dead. In a Roman festival called Rosalia, families had picnics by the tomb of a loved one. The family wore rose garlands and scattered rose petals over the tombs of the deceased.
“This was a personal family festival, associated with a good time and good feeling, not so much romantic love but love between people who are close to you,” Stackelberg said.
During the Middle Ages, in about the11th century, the rose became a symbol of ideal, pure and divine love. Men gave roses to women not so much as a symbol of a physical relationship but out of admiration for a woman who often as not was already married.
The rose also becomes associated with the Virgin Mary as a symbol of divine love during the Middle Ages.
But, it was not until the 1850s that the rose became associated with Valentine’s Day in America.
It at this point that for the first time in history the technology of the greenhouse made it possible to produce roses in bulk. And it was at this point the rose became symbolic of ideal and physical love, Stackelberg said.(Today most roses in the United States are imported from Colombia and Ecuador.)
Now, in the 21st century, the legacy of the rose lives on as the rose continues to symbolize love and devotion.
“It’s men who are buying, and they know a rose, but they don’t know about other flowers,” said Donna Ridgely, co-owner of Flowers By Donna on Maryland Avenue.
Sandi Latham, owner of Sandi’s Flower Shop on King George Street, said that the overwhelming majority of Valentine’s Day orders are for red roses. “I don’t know why, honestly,” she said. “I think that when you buy a rose you attach an extra-special meaning of love. You buy a rose for the same reason you buy a diamond.”