Bunch of red rosesWe understand the significance of receiving a bunch of red roses at work in front of a gaggle of excited work colleagues or a white lilies in a church.  But why would a flower gain significance and become a synonym for love and romance?  Likewise why would you expect to see lilies used in ceremonies of passing away?  These meanings in our society are created from fragments of history. In fact red roses and white lilies don’t have the same cultural significance in flower lore outside western cultures.  So what would we expect to see in Japan for example? More likely queues at chocolate shops than flower shops!

shower of petals falling and smothering guests at a banquet
The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Origins of plentiful roses didn’t always conjure up such romantic visions as we might see in shops, online and in film this year. The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, depict a shower of petals from roses and other flowers falling on to the guests of a banquet held by the Roman emperor Elagabalus.  In fact the petals were so ‘plentiful’ they were actually suffocating the guests to death.  It was probably the Victorians that created the tradition, or at least expanded floriography (the language of flowers) to a vastly more complex and intricate thing. John H Ingram’s book ‘Flora Symbolica’ was perhaps the first book to set out and record hundreds of meanings from flowers. These meanings were devolved from myth, religion and sometime pure indulgence on behalf of some of the authors!  If you have in interest in exploring this topic further have a look at Ingram’s book as well as the popular book from Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

While the Victorians seemed to connect lilies with purity according to John H Ingram, the modern connotation of lilies is closer to death or perhaps more accurately remembrance of life.  Even tragic events like world wars have contributed to flower lore. While WWI was waged in Europe, physician John McCrae’s poem played a part in imprinting poppies in the psyche of the British and the UK as a mark of respect to those that passed away. “ Lest we forget” was the commonly used phrase for Remembrance and ANZAC day in much of the English speaking world and the Poppy was the flower that provided that visual stamp.

yellow daffodil pin
Marie Curie daffodil pin

For some time Marie Curie has used the daffodil as a symbol of a joint fight and togetherness. As one of the first flowers to bloom in Spring it signifies the bringing of life to others, the charitable giving of one to another.  These events, organisations and historical retellings all create a story for flora or flower lore that extends beyond the five senses and imbues them with an extra layer of meaning.  

So we draw closer to the grand flurry of Valentines and what it entails; roses in supermarkets, online offers and promotions and romantic gestures to unrequited and requited loved ones.

chocolate shop window with heart shaped boxes inside
Japanese chocolate shop at Valentines

 Returning to Japan, do flowers and roses take the central stage in mainstream culture? Not really, Japan has certainly imported Valentine’s day but has tailored and created a differently flavoured tradition. It is a common to see the gifting of chocolate from women to men.  Chocolate makers have cleverly adapted the hetro-normative concept in Japanese culture of women not openly revealing their emotions to men. Instead of refuting this, they made Valentine’s day an exception to this, a day where this is permissible for women to express feelings more freely…. well if that means gifting chocolate at least!  If you are interested in reading more this might be worth a peruse


Seeing (in retrospect often) new traditions being created can be fascinating. It is happening in many likely and unlikely corners of our commercial and social world. While I was writing this  I received an email from a Brighton coffee chain and roastery, laying their claim to Valentine’s Day

“ Say I love you with the gift of coffee this Valentine’s day”.

I’m sure many of you will of received similar invitations from far more unexpected places, let us know which!

What we see today in the solitary red rose passed over the low lit candle glimmer table by our loved one may not convey the same meaning as it could in ten, twenty or more years.  Flower lore and our acceptance of what is appropriate for a given occasion will not likely remain as it is today. New traditions are created and old ones re-emerge from a place in our collective histories.  For now we can enjoy the beauty of flora, taste of chocolates and whatever joys you can on Valentine’s day, treat yourself, family and your loved ones to be…. or not to be.


All images used sourced as rights free; to use, share and edit.

Why are roses associated with love and romance? Lilies for funerals and how did this become flower lore?

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