February is time for matters of the heart. Whether or not one has a sweetie, we all have a heart. The heart is needed for more than romance; it is required for our survival, working to move blood throughout the body. A very hard-working organ, the heart beats more than 100,000 times per day, moving more than 2,000 gallons of oxygenated blood through approximately 60,000 miles of blood vessels every 24 hours in each of our bodies.  And it is a sensitive organ. It may get broken but, luckily, can be fixed.

The heart has always also been a symbol of love and even a few other things. The Greeks believed this organ to be the “seat of the spirit,” and the Chinese knew that it was the center for happiness. Egyptians suggested that all emotion and intellect arose from the heart. 

The organ inside of us does not at all resemble the double-humped symbol with a tapering ‘V’ that will be ubiquitous during this Valentine month. Our four-chambered version is the real deal and looks more like a muscular blob with tubes. 

That quintessential shape that we see on Valentine’s Day cards and text to our loved ones has been around quite a while. It was featured on Roman coins and in the writings of Aristotle and Galen, who wrongly described the human organ as three-chambered with a dent, perhaps leading to the iconic symbol.

It has been suggested, though, that today’s heart symbol originated to imply other body parts. Upside-down, it might more plausibly resemble breasts, buttocks or testicles than a true heart. Or, as other sources insist, the shape was botanically inspired by its resemblance to ivy leaves, which are known as a symbol of fidelity. 

The most interesting heart symbol origin story comes from another, now extinct plant. During classical antiquity, a plant known as silphium was very popular due to its medicinal values. Silphium was specifically esteemed for its use as a birth control agent, and its seeds resembled the now familiar heart shape. This plant is found in a story of two brothers, the Dioscuri, and their entanglement with a Spartan’s maiden daughter.

Christians eventually coopted the symbol and began incorporating it as an icon and in art and symbolism as the mark of Jesus Christ and his love. Now, it has become the most popular emoticon. The longevity of the heart symbol and its universal use to express and share love is a good thing, even if it doesn’t resemble the real thing. 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.