Valentines day: roses are what?

Valentines day: roses are what?


Margaret Stoddart, Roses, 1920s
Margaret Stoddart, Roses, 1920s

In Europe during the 1300s February 14th was thought to be the day when birds paired off to mate. This date was originally an ancient Greco-Roman pagan festival, and was later called St Valentines Day Feast by the Church. Since the 1300s, on February 14th each year, roses (and flowers in general),  have been widely accepted as gifts and Saint Valentines Day is now celebrated by many cultures in different parts of the world.  The art collection at Te Papa houses numerous paintings of roses and other flowers – for example Margaret Stoddart’s watercolour still life of roses.

The natural history collections at Te Papa also include many specimens of flowering plants (Angiosperms). However, in order to preserve them, these specimens are pressed and dried, and consequently loose the colour and beauty of the fresh flowers. Some of the oldest specimens in our collections were obtained by the naturalists who visited New Zealand during the voyages of Captain James Cook in the late 1700s.

Jersey cudweed. Specimen collected by Joseph Banks Oct. 1769

This specimen of jersey cudweed or pukatea (at left),  was collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on 8th October 1769 shortly after the Endeavour arrived in New Zealand waters and sailed into a bay at the entrance of a small river in Tuuranga-nui (today’s Poverty Bay, near modern Gisborne).

Storing these specimens provides an invaluable resource for scientific research, and the flowers are very important in determining the relationships between different species. However, the giving of flowers on Valentines Day raises an interesting question, as flowers are the sexual organs of plants!

What exactly is the meaning behind severing the sexual organs from a plant and giving them to a friend?

Sexual organs of animals are frequently used in traditional medicines and sold as aphrodisiacs – particularly the dried and ground-up remains of bacula (or penis bones), from seals, bears and other canines. However, presenting somebody with the severed sexual organs of a small mammal probably wouldn’t win many friends!

collection manager Anton van Helden and friend
Collection Manager Anton van Helden alongside  a stranded male pygmy blue whale.
For that matter, consider the reaction of presenting a lover with the sexual organs of a large mammal! Even the simple logistics of presenting such a large gift may not win over the object of one’s affection?


Meanwhile, James Cook continued his voyages of discovery, and Banks and the other naturalists collected many specimens of flowering plants which are still held in the collections at Te Papa and in other museums in Europe.

Valentines Day is also remembered for other reasons – on February 14th 1779, the Endeavour arrived in at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i, where during an altercation with local natives, James Cook was clubbed and stabbed to death. Perhaps he should have brought flowers.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *