02/06/2013 02:19 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

A Deeper Love: Artful Hearts for Valentine's Day

The heart is one of the world's most recognized symbols. My favorite heart-shaped Valentine's Day gifts are handcrafted by consciously aware artists (or you can make them yourself!).

Why let the generic, mass-market Hallmark holiday get you down? Valentine's Day is about more than commercialized concepts of romantic love. It's a day to celebrate the universal love that makes the world go 'round -- and what better way than with heart-inspired gifts that benefit artisans and art historians and celebrate diversity? Most of the gifts I've chosen to mark this day of love are purchased directly from the people who created them. Others are vintage or antique, which supports art historians who match-make artisan treasures with stewards who appreciate them. I hope these gifts inspire you and others to love, just love.

A Deeper Love: Artful Hearts for Valentine's Day
A Deeper Love: Artful Hearts for Valentine's Day

A Perfect Heart-Shaped Seed

I was curious about the heart's origins as a symbol of love.

Of the many theories I found, I'm buying the one about a medicinal plant from antiquity. Silphium, a plant that grew from a (perfect) heart-shaped seed from Cyrene, was so popular that it was over-harvested to extinction some 2,500 years ago.


Silphium was used to treat multiple ailments, but its primary use was as a contraceptive. That the symbol for love originated from the seed of a contraceptive plant makes a lot of sense to me. Feelings of romantic love or being "in love" are often connected with a desire to couple, and thoughtful family planning is not just smart and sane -- it is also loving. Profoundly so.

Silphium was in great demand, so it must have worked. The plant grew only near the town of Cyrene, and failed attempts to cultivate it elsewhere only served to further boost the town's prosperity. They essentially had a natural contraceptive monopoly. Sales were so hot that Silphium was depicted on the town's currency.

By the time of the Romans, the plant had disappeared.

I travel extensively with my husband, Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist and Medicine Hunter. I've seen firsthand how plants such as Silphium can provide economic abundance to an entire region which would otherwise have little or no means. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) in the Peruvian Andes and Kava (Piper methysticum) in Vaunuta, South Pacific, are two great examples of this. I've also seen precious plants being over-harvested to near extinction by the very communities that prosper from them. In South Africa, Hoodia (Hoodia gordonii) became endangered because of a diet craze in the United States, and I've heard that in the Amazonion, the vine Caapi (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaf Chakruna (Psychotria viridis), the two plants that make sacred Ayahuasca, are increasingly difficult to find in the wild.

"Killing the golden goose" is not just financially self-destructive. It's also unloving to the plant spirit. Too often, however, this is how we humans choose to behave.

But I believe we will learn. Our hearts will guide us.

NOTE: If you're interested in learning more about medicinal plants at risk, I highly recommend United Plant Savers.