An Anagram of Eros

February 14, 1994|By ANN EGERTON

When, where and why did people, mostly men, start sending roses to their lovers? It seemed like a simple enough task to find out.

A call to the reference department of the city library revealed that red roses were sacred to the Greek goddess Juno, no more than that.

People at the American Rose Society in Shreveport, Louisiana, said they had absolutely no idea and suggested that I call Roses, Inc, in Haslett, Michigan, which in turn came up with some charming and rather improbable little tales. One is that, in 1901, European pre-school children began giving gifts to each other on Valentine's Day, which prompted their parents to follow suit.

But Roses, Inc., in its 20-page press release, said nothing about the origins of sending red roses, although it knew that the tradition stems from the red rose reflecting the color of the human heart; the deeper the red, the deeper the sentiment.

I had earlier learned from ''The Book of Fresh Flowers,'' by Malcolm Miller, that the red rose has been a symbol of love since medieval times, but the practice of sending them is a relatively recent one. I pressed on.

I called several regional wholesale and retail florists, all of whom were embarrassed that they couldn't answer such a basic question concerning the third-busiest holiday -- after Christmas and Mother's Day -- in the flower business. They sent me back to the national level -- FTD, one of the country's largest floral wire services, in Southfield, Michigan.

FTD suggested that I call its publicity people, Cone Communications; Cone faxed me more charming stories, including that the holiday is not named after the Christ- ian martyr St. Valentine, but is really named after the old French ''galantin,'' meaning lover or gallant.

The release also said that people started buying and sending commercial valentines in England in the 1840s -- here a few years later. Cone Communications added that on Valentine's Day 1993, about 150 million roses and 140 million carnations were sent, but it still knew nothing about the origin of sending red roses. A secretary cynically suggested that perhaps the tradition was begun by ''a husband who had done something wrong.''

Having failed with both national and local flower authorities, and noting that the flower spokesmen knew a lot about the beginnings of sending Valentine cards, I perversely called Hallmark, the greeting-card people, to see what it knew about sending roses on February 14. It only knew that someone planted an almond tree on St. Valentine's grave back in the 3rd century, and that people frequently communicated via flowers during Victorian times.

How has knowledge of the genesis of such a pleasant but expensive (about $50 a dozen this year) tradition slipped through the cracks? Does it signal yet another death knell for romance? Are we losing both our curiosity and our cultural memory? Are we just lemmings?

The tradition is probably a result of the establishment of the greenhouse in cold climates, coupled with good old-fashioned marketing.

Tantalizing mysteries of time and place aside, I like the romantic observation that if you rearrange the letters of Eros, the Greek god of love, you get Rose. That's probably all we need to know.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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