The Tyranny of the Red Rose

Why has the red rose become the default for any occasion?

As a cultural symbol the rose has put down roots in ubiquity, dominating almost any type of gift giving.  However, in becoming so common, do they still mean anything?  If Fast Food can be critiqued for homogenising cuisines, what are red roses doing to how we express ourselves?  Are they just a prompted gesture for people that can’t be bothered to think?

The Commercial reality

Amazingly,  red roses dominate a floral global industry estimated to be worth $104,825,000,000.  Production is dominated by the Netherlands who accounts for 52% of the global cut flower trade.  Which shows some floral fortitude following the history of the great Tulip market crash in the 1630’s.   Columbia and other countries are fast growing competitors: ‘[the] massive Colombian industry … shipped more than 4 billion flowers to the United States last year — or about a dozen for every U.S. resident.’  Evidently, Americans have a lot to say thanks for …or to make up for.

What does a rose mean?

Symbolically, the combination of red for passion and the elegant flower signify love and passion.  This meaning goes back centuries through most of the cultures of the Mediterranean that are the backdrop of modern western symbolism.  The rose was the flower of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and later the symbol of the Virgin Mary.

alice in wonderland

It is interesting that is has become a default and almost reflexive gesture in Western ‘giving’.  Like the Red Card Soldiers in Alice in Wonderland, as long as it’s red, that is all that matters.  An iconic scene where Disney almost prefigured Dexter in manic illustration of the of the need for Red Roses.

Perhaps the commercial bellwether here is Cadbury Roses that conflates red rose and chocolate symbolism to just a workhorse slogan of ‘thank you very much’.

In our addiction to one flower we have forgotten how to speak the Language of Flowers

In the more social constrained 19th century, people used to speak through a wide range of floral arrangements that communicated different unspoken meaning.

Floriography enabled a wide variety of meaning to be expressed and reciprocated.  Of course, in a highly commoditised modern world the idea of speaking through multiple flowers, arrangements and vases might be a little complicated.

language of flowers

Lofti Zahda, famously observed that ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.  What is the convergence on one hero flower doing to our emotional expression?  Red roses have become another monolithic simplification of the modern world.  As society as become simpler, faster do we no longer have the time for nuanced and personalised expressions of feelings?   Or is this just the role of emoji now?

Perhaps as Rumi observed ‘A rose’s rarest essence lives in the thorn.’  There is a price to accepting a default choice.

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