Roses are red. Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet and so are you.
The simple little ditty passed around the school-yard in mid-February is actually most unseasonable. Neither roses nor violets are in flower in England at this time, nor is honey in production, as bee-keepers are only just beginning to import starter bees from warmer climes.
So how and why have roses become linked to Valentine’s Day? Historians say the custom of exchanging love verses on this day can be traced back at least as far as the 15th century. The custom of Valentine cards, often featuring roses, began in Victorian times, with canny printers and perfume-makers marketing their wares on the wings of love.
Above left: See the roses and other out-of-season flowers in this Victorian Valentine card. From the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection. ca. 1880 (made) Eugene Rimmel (maker) Cheret, J (designer). On display at V&A South Kensington Prints & Drawings Study Room, level C.
However, the flower-trade has risen to the challenge. Roses in February used to come from heated glass-houses in the Netherlands, until the rise in oil price in the 1970s made that uneconomical, and farmers in East Africa , using air-freight, took the opportunity to develop cut-flower exports, especially of roses, which grow well in the uplands, having cool nights and sunny days.
The UK cut-flower market is £1.3bn (2018 BBC figure) and 90% of imported roses come from Kenya, where these are now the second export after tea. Most of these roses come via the huge flower market at Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam.
It will be interesting to see whether prices reflect two
current hindrances to smooth imports of fresh produce:
- COVID travel restrictions mean that fewer aircraft from East Africa are coming in to Heathrow, as some of these passenger planes also used to carry fresh flowers. There used to be at least four flights a day either from BA or East Africa airlines
- At Dover, Brexit is affecting Ro-Ro freight traffic from the Netherlands. There are to be no checks on imports until July, and already delays for the Customs checks of outgoing UK exports mean that many freight firms can no longer fill the trucks for the two-way journey, and they go back empty. This will increase the price of freight.
Whether this will be a permanent effect of Brexit or just ‘teething problems’ remains to be seen. Maybe we will be able to measure this in the price of roses from one Valentine’s day to the next. Did anyone make a note of last year’s prices?