14 February 2023
Valentine’s Day: the stories behind the flowers
Flowers are often at the centre of Valentine celebrations, but what's the stories behind the plants connected with this day of romance?
Since the digitisation of Kew’s Herbarium and Fungarium collection began, we have piqued your interest in this ground-breaking project by using the various seasonal holidays as milestones.
So far, we have been haunted by the ghost orchids, had a sweet taste of vanilla orchids, and welcomed you to Kew’s Fungarium.
With St. Valentine’s Day now upon us, here we’ll look at the stories behind some of the plants used to decorate this romantic holiday and how they are featured by our Science Collection Digitisation Project.
Everybody knows that plants (particularly flowers) are front and centre during Valentine’s Day celebrations, as both decorations and romantic gifts. However, few are aware of just how they fit into this celebration of romance.
Bringer of Spring
The name of the occasion comes from Saint Valentine, a Christian saint who was beheaded and martyred in Rome on 14 February, 269 AD. That date was initially known as the Feast of St. Valentine. Due to its religious significance, various relics were placed in shrines across the Roman and later medieval Christian world, ostensibly linked to the saint in some way.
One of the most famous of these is the alleged skull of St. Valentine, which is still on display in Rome at the Basilica of Santa Maria. Displayed in a golden cabinet with a glass front, the skull is crowned with a garland, which is currently composed solely of artificial flowers.
The flowers chosen to adorn the skull have traditionally included roses, daisies, carnations, and many other species that grow in Mediterranean meadows, such as bee orchids. Out of these flowers, orchids have been of great interest to Kew, being the focus of our annual Orchid Festival, as well as the first group to be digitised as part of our Digitisation Project.
St. Valentine is the patron saint of love, affianced couples, happy marriages, bees and beekeepers, mental illness, epilepsy, and against fainting and plagues. In Slovenia, St. Valentine is known as Zdravko and is considered one of the saints of Spring, also being the patron of beekeepers and pilgrims and the bringer of good health.
Proverbs and traditional culture place St. Valentine as the saint responsible for plant growth, making them bloom and announcing the arrival of Spring. The association between the date and flowers seems to root in these traditions.
Orchids of love
Besides adorning the skull of the eponymous saint, orchids have long been associated with the traditions of Valentine’s Day.
While Red Roses are a more recognisable Valentine’s gift, orchids have also featured prominently as floral romantic presents, as they are a traditional symbol of reverence, romance and lovers, going back to ancient times. Furthermore, orchids are praised for their complex and exotic-looking flowers, which seem to be a representation of the complexity of love.
For instance, the orchid genus Paphiopedilum owes its name to the Temple of Paphos, dedicated to the ancient Greek love goddess, Aphrodite. For this reason, the genus is commonly known as the Venus slipper orchid (Venus being the Roman name for Aphrodite).
Popular as a romantic bouquet gift as well as a house plant, Paphiopedilum features prominently in Kew’s living and Herbarium collections. The living orchid collection is currently on display as part of the Orchid Festival. On the other hand, the slipper orchids (including the Venus slippers) have already been digitised by our team.
As the patron of bees and beekeepers, St. Valentine is said to safeguard the sweetness of honey and the health of beehives. Bees are responsible for pollinating numerous plant species by carrying pollen grains from one flower to another while they collect nectar and other floral resources.
Pollination represents the link that directly connects St. Valentine, as the patron of bees, to flowers and Spring.
Bees play a vital role in ensuring that many flowers complete their life cycles and return yearly, producing gorgeous wildflower meadows.
The other major collection we are currently digitising is Kew’s Palm Herbarium. While palms might not be mainstream associated with Valentine’s Day, they have been rarely associated with fertility.
Lodoicea maldivica, more commonly known as the coco de mer, is one of the most intriguing palms to be found in the world. Aside from collecting an astounding number of records among plants and other palms due to their size, the seeds from this palm are also locally known as love nuts.
This palm was discovered in 1743 when seeds were found stranded on Maldivian beaches. After a long journey by sea from the Seychelles, these seeds would arrive lacking their husk, exposing their peculiar shape. The seeds resemble a woman’s hip area, sparking wild histories and tales of how the yet unknown palm trees reproduced.
To make things even weirder, coco de mer is one of the few species of palms with separate male and female plants. The inflorescences of the male palm trees also present a rather phallic shape, giving rise to the legends that the trees made passionate love on stormy nights.
The legend goes on to say that the male trees uproot themselves and approach female trees. Apparently, the love-making trees were said to be rather shy, and whoever sees the trees mating will die or go blind. The fact that, to date, the pollination of the coco de mer is not fully understood continues to fuel this legend.
What’s love got to do with it?
Now that the connection between plants and St. Valentine’s Day has been clarified, let’s look at how it relates to our Digitisation Project. The process of imaging and transcribing specimens to make them available online – aka digitisation – serves a plethora of purposes. Perhaps the most important of these is that it can serve as a vital tool in preventing the extinction of plants and fungi, but also all the animals that rely on them for their existence.
The digitisation of both the orchids and palm collections allows our team to contemplate the natural world and how we are playing a part in helping preserve it. Here we’ve shown not only the cultural and religious importance of plants but also how we rely on them to survive.
The digitisation of our palm collection has posed a particular challenge due to these plants’ size and bulkiness. The specimens are especially complicated to arrange, taking around four times longer to image than a typical orchid specimen. So, producing these palm images really represents a labour of love.
Our Digitisation Officers have been working tirelessly to ensure the world is not only able to access these specimens but can also use them to preserve the planet we live on.
So, whether you go for a classic rose or perhaps push the boat out with a palm, just bear in mind the story behind the plant you offer your loved one this Valentine’s and remember that you’re playing a part in this tradition’s long floral history.