The humble, little crocus, little cups of purple and orange and white, that this week have begun to bloom, in grass verges and parks, deserve a closer look. Associated with joy and youth and mirth, and perhaps unknown to you, with Valentine’s Day. Really, croci are the true cupids of the flower world.
We don’t really know much about the real St Valentine or the origins of our annual day of love but it’s likely it’s a tradition that dates back to ancient times.
Many think the connection comes from Lupercalia, a Roman fertility Festival, celebrated on the Ides (15th) of February. This was a brash, bawdy affair – even by Roman standards – that involved the sacrifice of goats and dogs, running through the streets naked with the animals skins (and ‘striking’ women with them to aid fertility) and then couples (names drawn from a jar) ‘uniting’ for the night. Makes our 21st century date-nights seem rather tame…
Or we could be remembering the Roman physician and devout Christian priest, Valentinus, who got into trouble with Emperor Augustus for dispensing natural remedies, for marrying soldiers to their beloveds (men serving in the Roman army were banned from becoming husbands because it was thought it made them soppy) and for his devout Christian beliefs. For his sins, Valentinus was arrested and in an era of rough justice, sentenced to death. In prison he befriended his jailer and his daughter, Julia, to whom he taught arithmetic, history and literature. On the day of his execution — 14 February AD 270 – he gave Julia a hand-written letter wrapped with a yellow crocus. Upon opening it, Julia’s sight was miraculously restored and the first thing she saw was the beautiful little flower. The note was signed “From Your Valentine”. (Today you can pay homage to this St Valentine. His skull (!) can be seen in a glass reliquary at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.)
All rather miraculous, but this story doesn’t really explain the association with swooning hearts we associate Valentine’s with today. This probably comes from Crocus Sativus, the famous Saffron Crocus, revered since Greek times, for it’s delicate spice. At ancient Roman banquets, it’s said guests were sprayed with saffron water, a luxury scent thought to inspire love.
Yes these little garden light bulbs, have a rather heroic history. From the ancient Greek, Krokos, meaning “saffron yellow”, they were once an indispensable household item; as medicine, condiment, disinfectant, and dye. Crocus Satitvus was traded around the world as a most precious commodity – the most expensive spice in the world (for it takes 4300 blossoms to make one ounce). In the middle ages Saffron grown in England was considered the best in the world. Today the spice is mostly produced in Iran.
Just six petals on a short stem, crocus’ are unshowy and undemanding. But they shout ‘warmer days ahead’ and for this they have been long are associated with joy and youth and Spring. But drink them in some more and you’ll find a lovely Valentine’s gift that says perennially happy, lasting love. As cute as Cupid.
If you want to celebrate St. Valentine’s like the ancients, look back to Rome and hear how they wrote about love so long ago;