I heart hearts

Friday 12th February 2016

Over a romantic dinner with the wife last week we wondered where the heart symbol comes from, and where on Earth you can grow roses at this time of year. Here's what I found.

Heart-shaped ... something

The shape pre-dates its use as a symbol for love by several centuries.

Like many concepts from ancient history, it's up for debate but its earliest use may have been as a stylised plant seed, possibly the seeds of Silphium (itself a bit of a mystery).

Coins from the C6th BCE in Cyrene (now Libya) shown here show this stylised seed shape that resembles a heart.

The shape's romantic connection appeared in the C12th, with the oldest recorded example in an illustrated French story, with the heart held upside-down, shown in the left panel below.

By the late C14th the heart was typically shown the other way up, and in the C15th its use became widespread in religious depictions associated with Jesus, as shown in the middle panel below. At this time it was common to include the aorta at the top of the heart.

It found widespread use as a playing card suit (shown on the right, below) in the modern form with a dip at the top instead of the aorta by the mid C16th, but well into the C18th the aorta was common in religious painting.

Valentine's cards are though to date back to the C15th, like this example. Some claim that St Valentine himself, a third century Roman priest, was the first to send a valentine's card. He was sentenced to death for illegally marrying young lovers, and the night before his execution he sent a love note to the jailer's daughter. It didn't help.

The use of the heart symbol on Valentine's cards started in the C19th, who also invented a sadly forgotten practice of sending fake bank notes as tokens of their love.

I was surprised to learn that the heart only became associated as a shorthand for the verb to love in 1977 with the I ♥ NY campaign.


 

Winter roses

In the UK Valentine's day is in the middle of winter which isn't when roses flower. Surely daffodils would have been a better choice of romantic flower? And where the hell do roses come from at this time of year?

Roses are intertwined with love as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans where it was the flower associated with Aphrodite or Venus. Like hearts, the rose symbol was co-opted by Christianity, with the five petals symbolising the five wounds of Jesus in medieval Europe.

Today, 83% of all cut flowers in the world come from Kenya, the Netherlands, Colombia and Ecuador, with the first two mainly serving Europe and the second two the USA. Kenya supplies 88 million tons of cut flowers each year to Europe.

In the UK most of our February roses come from Kenya.  A 2008 report by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit  organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food, found that flowers are critical to the Kenyan economy and that around this time of year the army and police spend more time guarding flowers than protecting the locals.

The environmental cost is pretty awful as are the poor working conditions. The report is worth a read, and led me to discover Veriflora, which is like Fairtrade for flowers. It's worth asking your florist about when you're buying your beloved a dozen roses next week, and maybe get them something from closer to home?

 

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