Why Are Roses So Popular for Valentine’s Day?

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Learn the lore and logistics behind giving roses for Valentine's Day.

When it comes to gifts and tokens of affection, flowers are a classic choice. But of all the flowers given on holidays, few are as closely associated with Valentine’s Day as the red rose. Even if you’re not someone who pays attention to the mid-February holiday, it’s hard to miss the sales displays filled with dozens of Valentine’s Day roses situated front and center in supermarkets, drugstores, and even gas station mini-marts. Of all the Valentine’s Day gifts out there, none are as iconic as the rose.

In 2021 alone, people spent $21.8 billion on Valentine’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation. Of that, $2 billion went to Valentine’s Day flowers—averaging out to a little over $15 per person. That number typically increases every year, so there’s a decent chance the figure will be even higher in 2022. And grumble as they may about the cost of Valentine’s Day roses (it skyrockets around the holiday), Americans are willing to pay the price for the flower that best signifies love.

“Plants are great for long-lasting tokens of love, and a simple red rose plant is ever popular,” says Sandra Varley, a florist with more than a decade of experience and the sales and marketing manager for Flying Flowers. And while a bouquet of cut roses may not last quite as long as a rose bush, it says “I love you” for as long as the flowers live—longer, if you dry them.

Of course, Valentine’s Day roses aren’t strictly for expressing romantic love. Thanks to different rose color meanings, the classic beauties make great Valentine’s Day gifts for friends and family members too. But before you hit the nearest florist for a rainbow’s array of roses, find out how the tradition of giving roses for Valentine’s Day started (a neat piece of trivia) and which roses are tops. And in the hubbub of the holiday, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.

Why is a rose given on Valentine’s Day?

The tradition of giving roses for Valentine’s Day has several origin stories, and like the history of Cupid and Valentine’s Day, it’s rooted in Greek mythology. “Some stories say that the first red rose was created when the Greek goddess Aphrodite was scratched by a white rose’s thorn, causing that rose to turn red,” says Sara Cleto, PhD, a folklorist and cofounder of the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic. “Others say that the first red rose grew on the ground where Adonis, Aphrodite’s lover, died and the goddess’s tears fell.”

As far as the history behind the tradition of Valentine’s Day roses, an early figure sometimes connected to the association between roses and romance is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of a British ambassador to Turkey during the 1700s. “Lady Montagu wrote letters home enthusing over a version of Turkish ‘flower language,’ or the process of assigning certain symbolic meanings to certain flowers, but she seems to have misinterpreted this local custom, which had more to do with rhyming words than the significance of the flowers themselves,” Cleto says. “Still, the concept of ‘flower languages’ caught on, especially in 19th-century England, and over the course of that century, roses became ever more tightly linked to romantic love.”

But a huge reason giving roses for Valentine’s Day has persisted as a tradition is “simply because roses are beautiful, fabulous-smelling flowers that happen to travel really well,” says Cleto. “Flowers are usually shipped over long distances, and roses are both gorgeous and hardy, so that’s a huge part of why this practice has continued.”

What are the best roses for Valentine’s Day?

Red roses are the best roses for Valentine’s Day because the color is associated with passion and romantic love. “Part of this is probably because red dye used to be particularly expensive, difficult to obtain, and sometimes synonymous with royalty,” Cleto explains. “All these factors made red feel especially desirable and luxurious.”

Everyone has their preferences as far as the variety, but according to Varley, Samourai roses are tops when it comes to Valentine’s Day roses. “It is the perfect intense red that oozes luxury, and the large petals are velvety in texture and are complemented well by the surrounding dark green leaves,” she says. “The shape of the bloom is perfect for a romantic bouquet also, as the oval buds open to a large double bloom flower, which is full and impactful. One further advantage is that this particular rose is thornless, which is perfect for gift-giving.”

While COVID-19–related quarantine ignited a love of houseplants in Americans across the country, plants haven’t supplanted roses as Valentine’s Day gifts. “Red roses are still far and away the most popular stem on Valentine’s Day,” says Varley. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to buy red roses. Mixed-stem bunches in hot pinks are becoming more popular. However, nothing quite says love like a red, red rose.”

Of course, if you’re celebrating platonic love—say, for Galentine’s Day—you’ll want to go with something that signifies friendship. Skip the red and go straight for the yellow roses.

Those looking for inexpensive Valentine’s Day gifts may need to get creative if they want to give someone red roses—a dozen stems can go for $50 to $100, with the price inching upward the closer you get to February 14. Make homemade Valentine’s Day cards featuring the flower and perhaps one of the best love quotes of all time. Find one of the funniest Valentine’s Day cards and add a sketch of a rose inside. Or go with a solo stem. It’s a small nod to tradition that you can present before a date at a romantic restaurant or atop a Valentine’s gift.

Sources:

  • Sara Cleto, PhD, a folklorist and cofounder of the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic
  • Sandra Varley, a florist with more than a decade of experience and the sales and marketing manager for Flying Flowers
  • National Retail Federation: “Valentine’s Day Data Center”
  • KSHB Kansas City: “The cost of one dozen red roses from various retailers”

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for RD.com. She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.