The Original Heart-Shape

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, which means the arrival of heart-shaped decorations and candies galore. In case you haven’t noticed, though, none of those cute heart symbols look like an actual human heart. That would be gross. Still, it brings up an interesting question: Where did the heart symbol come from and why is it so biologically inaccurate? There are actually several theories regarding the origin of the heart symbol. Some think it’s a mistake made by Medieval monks drawing organs described in ancient Greek texts. Others think it’s curvaceous design was based off of … other anatomical features. Still others claim it was inspired by ancient fennel.

Silphium is a possibly-extinct form of giant fennel that was all the rage in the ancient world. It was valued as a panacea and was used to literally spice things up in the bedroom. It’s not surprising that such a useful plant eventually gained a close association with romantic love. Trade in silphium was an essential underpinning of ancient economies, especially Cyrene in Northern Africa, which valued the plant so much they featured its fruit on their silver coins. Interestingly, the fruit of silphium looks identical to the modern heart symbol. Did this important fruit and all its connections to eros survive to the modern age, or are anatomical descriptions in Greek particularly difficult to interpret by candlelight? We really can’t say, but we love to speculate.

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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