posted by: John Murgel, Horticulture and Natural Resources Specialist, Douglas County
Giving flowers to someone you love on Valentine’s Day (or other occasions) seems so stupendously commonplace that it’s hard to imagine a time when it was not done. Perhaps such a time didn’t really exist—the emotional relationship of humanity with plants seems to be of longer duration than any other intentional relationship with other organisms. The oldest known grave site ornamented with flowers, for example, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-13,000 years old. Plant permeate our lives, in friendship, courtship, weddings, grand events, weddings, and funerals.
Roses are one of the most popular flowers for gift-giving and laden with symbolism of every type for every color. They’ve also got a local connection—the oldest known fossil rose (about 35 million years old) is from Colorado!
Roses have also been declared the national flower of the United States of America, a position they’ve held since 1986. With 110 wild species of roses and countless cultivated varieties, I think this makes a nice homage to a diverse nation. Roses are also tough plants and can be very long-lived. If you’ve ever tried to remove an established rose bush you are likely quite familiar with the strength of roots and incessant re-sprouting from any fragments left behind. In fact, the oldest known living rose, the “Millennium Rose” in Hildesheim, Germany, is at least 700 years old and survived not only the firebombing of the cathedral on which it grew during World War II, but also the subsequent bulldozing and rebuilding of the structure, only to resprout to again cover the wall of the apse of the building! Now there’s a plant that means business. What better way to symbolize undying love to someone special!?
Violets are perhaps less popular today than in times past as a gift plant, having given way to showier things. They have been cultivated, though, for at least two millennia, and were a symbol of the city-state of Athens. The sweet violet, Viola odorata, has a reputation for its fleeting, sweet smell. Legend has it that violets would actually steal your sense of smell, but it seems that the volatile compounds produced by the blooms actually contain a component that can temporarily overwhelm olfactory reception. Perhaps because of this temporality, violets have become associated with death and memory as well as love, and a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. Poignantly, Napoleon picked violets from his first wife’s (Josephine) grave to take with him to his final exile on St. Helena—a man with much to regret and much to be ashamed of taking solace in a deep botanic connection at the end.
The average American consumes about 11 pounds of chocolate each year. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, consider that it’s only about half of what the average person in Switzerland eats. A perennial topic seems to be whether or not dark chocolate is “good for you.” The answer: an unsatisfying “maybe”, at least for now. Chocolate is a variable product, and studies of its health benefits are usually on individual chemical components rather than on a chocolate product (Rusconi, M and Conti, A 2010. Theobroma cacao L., the Food of the Gods: A scientific approach beyond myths and claims. Pharmacological Research 61:1 pp5-13). For now, justify enjoying it based on its deliciousness rather than on health benefits!
If you’re giving someone a plant today (and I hope you are), enjoy both the individual plant and moment, but take time to reflect on the deep well of human experience with which you are connected in doing so. Perhaps one could say that humans love plants best of all.
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