Wild Love: A Valentine’s Day Natural History

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. But we’ve had warning – the decorations started going up in stores the day after Christmas. As a holiday, though, it almost keeps pace with Christmas. The first incarnation of the celebration may go back to Ancient Roman times, with the fertility festival of Lupercalia. St. Valentine himself could have been one of three martyrs of that name who died around the 3rd century AD. Irrespective of its religious roots, though, today it’s more of an opportunity to express your feelings to your loved-one (real or aspirational).

So I’m guessing you’re the romantic type – you’re going to do something lovely for your sweetheart on the day. Probably those traditional gifts and activities too – you’ll start with a card and roses on the bed (even though it’s a Tuesday this year), then some chocolates on the counter at breakfast, alongside a nice beeswax candle. In the evening, you’ll go to dinner, where you’ll give your love a small piece of jewelry hidden behind the crème brûlée. Points to you for being such a great partner.

Each of these traditions has their links deep within our culture and connects us in different, subtle ways to the natural world. Take paper, for instance. You used it in your card. The custom of sending greeting cards dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used papyrus scrolls to carry their messages. By the early 15th century Europe, the Black Plague made rag paper from disused undergarments (nice…) readily available and handmade paper plentiful enough so that greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe. The oldest Valentine dates back to 1415 and still resides in the British Museum. It was written by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. I guess it never found its way to the Duke’s wife or it would have been in the Louvre.


Red roses first emerged in Greek and Roman mythology associated with the goddess of love: Aphrodite in Greece and her Roman counterpart, Venus. In Greek mythology, the story goes that rose bushes grew from the ground through Aphrodite’s tears and the blood of her lover, Adonis. Later, in early Christian iconography roses became associated with the virtue of Virgin Mary, the red symbolizing her charity and white, her chastity. The tradition of giving Valentine’s Day flowers apparently dates back to the late 17th century. One source I’ve found says this tradition was popularized by King Charles II of Sweden during a trip to Persia, when he was exposed  the language of flowers. “Floriography” became extremely popular, in use through the end of the 19th century. Today, it’s principally roses really keep their floriographical significance – red for passion, yellow for friendship, etc.

One thing that’s not generally known, though, is how old very roses actually are. They evolved from magnolias, common species in during the Cretaceous, the period ending when a giant meteor hit what is now the Gulf of Mexico, killing off the non-avian dinosaurs. According to fossil evidence, the rose we know today got going about 35 million years ago, part of the proliferation of their ancestors into stone fruits, apples, berries including strawberries, almonds and a host of flowers and small trees. Eohippus, the foot-high ancestor of the modern horse might well have wondered around munching on rose bushes (although doubtless not the Pretty Lady RoseTM hybrid tea roses in this AI-generated illustration).

Chocolate (cocoa)

Chocolate comes from cocoa tree Theobroma cacao ranging from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin. They’re understorey plants, growing well in the shade of larger trees. Its Latin genus name derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.”. The species name cacao comes from indigenous Mesoamerican languages for the plant, such as “kakaw.” Cultivation began around 5000 years ago and genetic evidence points to Peru and Ecuador, where it was originally domesticated, for the pulp that surrounds the beans, which is eaten as a snack and fermented into an alcoholic beverage used in religious rituals. Today, global production fuels our collective addition to chocolate, close to 6 million tons ever year, much of it from equatorial Africa.

Giving chocolates at Valentine’s Day finds it way to us first through the inventiveness of Richard Cadbury of the 19th century. This British family developed a way to make economical chocolate bars from cocoa butter, a byproduct in the production of chocolate liquor. In America, Chocolatier Russell Stover linked chocolates with romance in 1923 with the introduction of the heart-shaped box of chocolates and some clever marketing. Of course, a major reason we feel romantic when eating the stuff is because of its psychological effects. Science demonstrates what many of us already knew – that people crave it and that, in some people, there’s a link to hormonal fluctuations. Other research shows something less well-known: that the flavanols (plant pigments found in fruits and vegetables, tea, and cocoa beans) in dark chocolate not are only potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents, but they penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, with benefits to cognition, mood, and behavior.

Candles (bees)

For early humans, the ability to see inside a habitation without natural light transformed their culture, allowing them to shelter from predators and the elements, affording them a greater range of options for living. Curved stone lamps dating as far back as Mesolithic, Middle Stone Age 10,000 to 15,000 years ago have been found at found at Lascaux in France. Shell lamps and alabaster shell-shaped lamps may stretch back 6,000 years since the Early Bronze Age. Candles, however, are slightly more recent, dating back about 5,000 years, with the Ancient Egyptians, who made rushlights by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted tallow (animal fat). They had no wick like a true candle and it would be somewhat later before the ancient Romans developed wicked candles by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax.

Meanwhile, humans have been domesticating honeybees in artificial hives since antiquity, beginning in ancient Egypt around 2000 BCE, where bees were kept in pottery vessels and woven straw baskets called “skeps”.  These structures have archetypal beehive shape and are still made today. Ancient Egyptian pictures from the Fifth Dynasty show workers blowing smoke into hives and sealed jars of honey were found in the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the cleaner-burning, sweeter-smelling beeswax candles replaced the tallow variety. Since that time, candle-makers (chandlers) developed the use of paraffin, a byproduct of petroleum and, eventually, this gave way to gas and then electric lights. (I’m lucky – it would be difficult to type this blog by candlelight.)

Today, the major concern over honeybees is their long-term survival, not just for the honey for your morning toast, but in their use as pollinators for most of our pasture, fruit, and vegetable crops, worth $15 billion to the US economy. Today, bee growers are encouraging people to plant pollinator gardens at home to help stem the tide of collapsing bee populations worldwide.

Crème brûlée (dairy)

The Auroch Bos primigenius, was the wild ancestor of modern cows, once ranging over large areas of Asia, Europe and North Africa. They were first domesticated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent area of the Near East and evolved into two types of domestic cattle, the humped Zebu Bos indicus and the humpless European Highland cattle Bos taurus. They were part of the Pleistocene megafauna, sharing their range with creatures such as mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, and giant sloths. Keeping pace with such enormous neighbors, male Aurochs stood almost 6’ at the shoulder.

Spanish Levant, Neolithic Bull surrounded by archers painted on a rock face. Photo: Pouazity3 2022

Neolithic farmers in Britain and Northern Europe may have been among the first to begin milking cattle for human consumption as early as 6,000 years ago. According to researchers, the ability to digest milk was slowly gained some time between 5000-4000 B.C.E. when lactase persistence arose through a genetic mutation allowing adult humans to continue to digest milk. By 3000 BC dairy cows were playing a major role in Ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations. In Egypt, the cow was held sacred, associated with the goddess Hathor, guardian of the fertility of the land.

While your crème brûlée isn’t nearly so old as that, it does date back to the Renaissance. In the 15th a sweetened custard was made from the specially rich milk available during calving season. The story goes that at Trinity College, Cambridge a student had the idea of embossing the school crest into the top of the dessert with a topping of sugar. It’s been called Trinity Cream ever since. It then wasn’t until 1691 that written recipes for crème brûlée began to appear in French cookbooks.

Jewelry (diamonds)

I was always taught that diamonds are made from coal. My favorite example of this is the wonderful scene from Baron Munchhausen in which Vulcan (Oliver Reed) crushes a lump of coal into a diamond for Venus (Uma Thurman). Unfortunately, it’s not true. Natural diamonds are much older than the Earth’s plant material, the main ingredient in coal, although both are made of carbon. Coal is a sedimentary rock with seams often occurring in horizontal layers, while diamonds are found in vertical layers associated with igneous minerals.

Diamond formation occurs when carbon deposits 90 to 125 miles below the Earth’s surface are subjected to high temperature and pressure in a process that can take millions or even billions of years. Colored diamonds get their look from inclusions of trace elements during formation. Nitrogen inclusion makes it yellow, while boron will make the diamond blue and graphite can make it gray or black. Variations in temperature and pressure can turn the diamond red or pink. Nearly all diamonds found in mines were formed in the Earth’s upper mantle and delivered to the surface by a deep-source volcanic eruption. They’ve also been found in craters formed by the intense heat and pressure of meteor strikes and nanodiamonds have been discovered in some meteorites.

Diamonds’ hardness made them useful as an industrial tool before they were used as adornment. Use in drilling ornamental beads dates back to Yemen in the 2nd  millennium BCE. By 400BCE diamonds had made their to Europe, enriched with exoticism and mythology. The Greek physician Ctesias published Indica, a compilation of travelers’ tales about India, in which he described rich diamond deposits guarded by griffins.

When they were first worn, nothing was known to be able to cut or polish it, so they were used in its natural octahedral crystalline structure: eight sides joined together, like two pyramids joined at the base, because. In this setting the stones appear dark, which explains the look of the diamonds in, for instance, the coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Later it was discovered that the uncut gems could be shaped and shined by their own dust, a process still used today. The word “diamond” comes from the ancient Greek word “adamas,” meaning “unbreakable,” seemingly related to the Latin verb ‘adamare’: to love passionately. Ancient Rome was the first place known in which diamonds were used in association with marriage and a public pledge of commitment. In the first century AD India became the start of the global mining industry it is today. Fast forward to 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with the first diamond engagement ring. Fast forward again to Marylin Monroe and, well, you’re on your own.

This little stroll through the natural history of our most beloved day of love highlights how connected we are to nature in ways we don’t even think about. That deep relationship to our cultural history and the resources we use in our daily lives is ample reason to protect the planet.

If ten months from now you’d like to visit more of this seasonal content, check out my Christmas botany post.

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