Violets for Valentine

By Glennis Byron
February 14, 2023
Filed in Flowers
6 minutes

Roses are red

Violets are blue;

But they don’t get around

Like the dandelions do.

Slim Acres

I’m always open to the possibility of flowers and a nice box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. (My husband checks my posts before I press publish so I thought that might be worth a mention.) But I have no interest in those dreadful roses imported for the occasion from Ecuador, Columbia (for North America) or Equatorial Africa (for Europe).

The deathly stiff perfection of those hybrid teas doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, and we all know now how bad they are for the planet. Such flowers are grown in high-altitude industrial greenhouses with the help of huge amounts of water and toxic chemicals before being flown thousands of miles in refrigerated airplane holds.

Then there’s the excess plastic wrapping and the petrol guzzling trucks used to deliver the flowers around the country. All this for a red rose that’s not even worth a sniff? Come to think of it, skip the flowers, I grow my own anyway, so, what the heck, double up on the chocolate instead.

I thought for a Valentine’s Day post I’d take a quick look at what lies behind all the ritual associated with this holiday and what has led to millions of these roses being imported every year around this time.

Why Saint Valentine?

To start with the man himself, the reasons for Saint Valentine being associated with romance are murky at best. There seem to have been quite a number of early Christian martyrs with that name and all met the usual unpleasant ends. Two in particular were purportedly executed on February 14 and so this became their feast day. They displayed all the usual attributes of the martyr – steely faith, courage in the face of torture, and miraculous cures. Unfortunately their stories have not the slightest whiff of romance about them.

It was not until the time of courtly love in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the day became associated with romance, and this was less to do with Valentine himself than with the season of his feast day, a time when, supposedly, birds begin to pair up and mate. One scholar has argued that it was specifically Chaucer who first linked Valentine’s Day and love, through descriptions of pining lovers and cooing birds in what are known as his Valentine day poems. In Parlement of Foules, for example, all the birds gather before ‘noble goddess Nature’

To receive her judgment and give her audience.
For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird comes there to choose his mate

Geoffrey Chaucer, Parlement of Foules, (1380)

I imagine you’ll be relieved to be spared the academic details (and the original Middle English), but the end result, according to this theory, is a new holiday focused on lovers.

After this, it was celebrated amongst the commoners as a day for divination: lots would be drawn to see who would be one’s valentine, and, potentially, one’s future spouse. Amongst those at court it became a time for giving elaborate gifts and the writing of love poetry.

But it was not until the eighteenth century that Saint Valentine’s Day began to resemble the holiday with which we are now familiar and the practice of sending valentines began. The basic story of the Christian martyr(s) is now embellished to add that hint of romance it was sorely lacking. One of the early Valentines, it is now claimed, restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. He then wrote the girl a farewell letter before his execution signed ‘from your Valentine’, thus conveniently making him the creator of the very first Valentine card.

And what’s all this got to do with flowers?

The ‘culture of flowers’

But given the focus of this blog, the more important issue is why people started sending flowers on Valentine’s Day. The answer seems to be partly to do with the growing commercialisation of the holiday in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. The giving of gifts on Valentine’s Day became more widespread, almost at the same time as the emergence of what Jack Goody has called a ‘culture of flowers’.

Previously, only the aristocracy and wealthy merchants had the resources for the cultivation and growing of fresh flowers, but now there was a rise in domestic flower gardening among the middle classes and the emergence of gardening literature. Flowers became one of the many ways in which one’s position within the middle classes was signaled.

There was also a growing interest in the language of flowers and the notion that flowers could convey hidden messages to the recipient. This clearly went a long way towards making them the ideal gift from a romantic and hopeful young man to the object of his affection and – Ka-ching! – was something the florists of the time (a burgeoning profession) seized upon eagerly.

To top it all off, there was the excitement of new plants being brought in from the empire and a resulting growing interest in hothouse gardening. And of course, hothouses allowed not only for the propagation of these exotic flowers, but also the forcing of those flowers that responded to warmth rather than daylight hours (including roses, camellias, lilies and violets) and could be encouraged to bloom outside of their natural season. Flowers were now easily available for Valentine’s Day. But which to choose?

Roses are red, violets are blue…

Perhaps rather surprisingly, roses were not initially the flower of choice. Instead, it was the violet, symbol of faithfulness and modesty, that was the most popular Valentine flower. You may already have noticed that the vintage valentines I’ve been reproducing do not show roses, but violets. To emphasise the point, here’s a collection of advertisements collected in The American Florist for 1916:

Special boxes were available to florists for holding 50 violets at time. There were massive hothouses devoted to the growing of violets in both America and England, and much money to be made from their production.

In the Rhinebeck area of New York alone there were over a hundred violet growers by 1916, with acres of hothouses leading to the town becoming popularly known as ‘Crystal City’. There’s an interesting piece on those growers here.

The Russian violet, Viola suavis, was a popular choice for Valentines

But 1916 also seems to be a pivotal moment in the fortunes of the violet. In the American Florist for 1916, florists from various cities report on their sales for Valentine’s Day. In Nashville, for example,

St. Valentine’s day was a brilliant success … Violets were easily the favorite ‘valentine flower’ and many thousand were sold. … The red rose was second in demand to the violet … There was plenty of lily of the valley, which was a favorite combination with violets…

American Florist 46, 1916

But at the same time, there were some ominous rumblings. In Providence it was reported

Violets this year are not having the call that they have had in former years, and the growers are not growing as many violets as usual. There seems to be only one solution to this problem, and that is that the street fakirs and small stores are cutting prices so much, and the violet is becoming so common, that the better class of people will not buy them.

American Florist 46, 1916

To be dismissed as ‘common’ was the death knell for the valentine violet. The much scarcer and expensive rose, with all the exciting new hybrids being developed, was hot on its heels, ready to take its place as the favourite valentine flower that it continues to be today.

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