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What Do Women Want if They Don’t Want Flowers?

Spoiler: All kinds of stuff, including flowers

For most of us, the words “Valentine’s Day” immediately conjure images of men handing women shiny boxes of chocolates, teddy bears, and most of all, dozens upon dozens of red roses. You probably bought your first girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day in high school, right? And why not? It’s The Thing (not that The Thing), and furthermore, she probably expected you to do it.

The stakes only seem to get higher as you get older, too: The teddy bears get bigger, and then there’s, y’know, diamonds. Still, if you believe the Hallmark commercials, nothing truly says “I love you” (or simply, “Yes, I remembered it was Valentine’s Day”) than huge bunches of flowers.

Despite the expectation on both sides, though, do most women actually want flowers? Not all of them, certainly: MEL Deputy Editor Alana Levinson, for example, says she would be far more appreciative of a man who Postmated her chicken nuggets on Valentine’s Day. But is she in the minority, or are flowers only cultural lag, an outdated shorthand that makes you look boring and uncreative? And if you’re not supposed to get flowers, what are you supposed to get?

I turned to my favorite group of experts (my gal pals far and wide) to find out.

First, the good news — for florists, at least: Lots of women do like and want flowers. My friend Mandy, for example, is happy to get them for Valentine’s Day because her boyfriend travels a lot for work and is usually out of town, and she has no problem with the fact that they’re conventional. “Not everyone is amazing at gift-giving and just doing something to mark it counts,” she says. “I don’t need it to be a fucking obstacle course for you to show me that you love me.”

I love flowers, too, and keep them around my house most of the time, so I’d be happy to get them on Valentine’s Day as they’d bring me genuine pleasure. But then, I’d be just as happy to get them any other day of the year, too. My friend Natalie agrees: “I don’t care about getting anything on Valentine’s Day particularly — I want flowers every day!” she says. She also points out that flowers can be a great gift moneywise because, “There’s such a vast spectrum of prices. There’s no excuse not to get them — it’s like pizza.”

If you do decide to stick with flowers for your valentine, my pal Emily from Green Snapdragon Designs has some pro tips for you: “Don’t get roses — they’re a huge racket.” This, she explains, is because they’re out of season in February and have to be specially grown. Instead, Emily recommends flowers closer to in-season, like tulips, “which also mean love,” she points out, or irises. She also suggests that the budget-conscious look to grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods for nicer flowers that don’t cost a small fortune. If going with local florists, she recommends calling directly rather than using FTD and to ask for “designer’s choice,” which will get you the most for your budget.

Cost and seasonality are definitely factors for my friends who live in cold climates, some of whom love flowers but don’t want them on Valentine’s Day. “The money spent on them would make me anxious,” says my friend Rae. Sophia adds that the money could be better spent on something much more useful: “Carnations are nice, but a fistful of basil is truly winter romance’s flower,” she says.

For Liz, flowers are fine but can become “a chore for me to throw out once they’re smelly and have gunked up the vase.” Plus, she’d be “bummed” to receive flowers and nothing else “for any holiday-type occasion.” They’re nice, in other words, but by themselves they don’t show that you put much thought into it.

Others, though, are steadfast: Flowers are an absolute don’t. Vanessa and Meg find them “uncreative” and “so boring,” respectively. Some of this could be down to the temporary nature of the flowers themselves. “You’re forcing me to watch pretty things die!” says Hattie. Even Kenna, a self-described “plant person,” would rather have something she can “keep alive and thriving, like our relationship.” For others, like M, the smell of flowers is too strongly associated with funerals to make them a good gift. And others, like Emily P., enjoy flowers in theory, but knows they’d make her “way too anxious about poisoning [her] kitties.”

Plenty of people also have concerns about the ethical and environmental issues involved. My friend Hiếu worries about “where they might be grown and labor conditions” involved. She’d rather have “an awesome potted plant” that will long outlast Valentine’s Day and is less likely to have involved exploitation. Another friend, Quin, agrees: If someone gives her a “sad box of sad pesticides,” it’s a sure sign they don’t know her very well.

So if not flowers, what? Ideally, something that shows you’re clued in to your valentine. Erin loves to get flowers, but was far more impressed when her valentine “secretly learned to make to make lemon bars from scratch! Crust! Fresh-squeezed lemon juice!” Edie would rather her partner “[set] aside time for us.” And when Natalie couldn’t have flowers at her office because of possible contamination issues, a friend had cookies delivered and made the delivery person read a note that said “I love you, Natalie!” to the entire office, which was “extraordinary and perfect.” (Massive disclaimer: Not everyone wants a big public display, flowers or otherwise. Megan finds them “ostentatious,” while Meg finds the constant small talk they invite “embarrassing.”)

Really, there are as many opinions about flowers as there are people, so the most important thing to consider is what your valentine would actually like. The flowers themselves aren’t the point: It’s about the person you date feeling seen, loved and understood. If you can manage that, you’ll have a very happy Valentine’s Day indeed.