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A Woman’s Love of Roses

By Andrew Burgon /
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January 3, 2014

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By Janine from Mililani, Hawaii, United States (Uploaded by Fæ) / CC-BY-2.0

A Women to Whom All Rose Lovers Owe a Debt of Gratitude

A woman of average height, svelte yet shapely made her way down a path flanked by roses. She knew them all by name. Rosa gallica flore giganteo, Rosa Gallica Pontiana and Rosa Indica Fragrans. On this bright, sunny morning she stopped momentarily to touch them gently and appreciate their fragrance. Great was her admiration for them.

Turning the corner she came upon Rosa Sulfurea in riotous bloom. She walked right up to it and looked at the prodigious display of rose buds. “Oh, look at you. You’re gorgeous!”

Pierre-Joseph Redouté [Public domain]

She motioned to one of the gardeners to give her one of the yellow rose buds and then continued wandering down the path. She gently pressed the yellow rose pud to her lips and drank in their arousing scent.

A walk through the gardens brought her great comfort. A journey that was rich and rewarding and helped her forget a a troubled past. A husband who abandoned her and their two children. Weathering difficult financial times in a convent. Then finding herself thrown into prison, enduring great hardship and the unnerving realization that at any moment she may find herself kneeling before Madame guillotine.

“Empress Josephine!” A soldier walked into the garden and bowing said, “I have a message from Napoleon.” From a brown leather pouch he took out the letter and presented it to her. She thanked him but saved the opening of the letter for later over a glass of red wine. She continued to walk through the gardens.

Her interest in plants went well beyond rose trees. She also had a selection of European natives, trees and shrubs from Asia and the Americas on her property. She smiled as she saw the stunning Chinese Magnolia denudata on her right and to her far left the sweet bay M. virginiana.

Josephine’s Elaborate Gardens at Chateau de Malmaison

Josephine purchased the lovely Chateau de Malmaison in 1799. It was a huge estate of 650 acres. She hired landscapers and horticulturalists from the United Kingdom to create English style gardens. A monumental effort ensued to landscape three hundred acres of land.

She liked to converse with her staff on all matters of botany and horticulture. Her knowledge grew by leaps and bounds.

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By voor Elisa (Own work) / CC-BY-SA-3.0

It was Josephine’s desire to collect all known roses and have them growing in her elaborate gardens. No small effort or expense was expended to fulfill her wishes. It has been said that one of the highly prized bulbs she obtained cost her 3000 francs.

Napoleon had his warship commanders search all seized vessels and send the plants and seeds found on them to Malmaison.

Other plants were sent to her from a nursery owned by James Lee and Lewis Kennedy in Hammersmith, London. In one year alone she spent close to 2,600 pounds obtaining the specimens that she desired.

Though England and France were at war at the time the British and French Admiralites granted these shipments a safe-conduct pass so they could pass through blockades unhindered.

Sir Joseph Banks, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, also sent her roses.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s Book, Les Roses

Pierre-Joseph Redoute was a renowned floral illustrator during his time. He created etchings by hand that were amazingly vibrant and detailed. To these etchings he applied his paints to make pictures.

Josephine quickly took a liking to his work and commissioned him to paint the flowers from her gardens with the intention of publishing them along with botanist Claude Antoine Thory’s descriptions. The culminating work was the remarkable Les Roses. It was published in three volumes from 1817 to 1820 covering 168 roses about half of which grew at Malmaison. Unfortunately, Josephine never got to see them as she passed away three years before their publication.

Taking Up Residence in Malmaison

After Josephine and Napoleon were divorced she went to live in the Chateau de Malmaison during which time roses were not cataloged. It is assumed though that upon her death there were about 250 types of roses in her garden. Jules Gravereaux of Roseraie de l’Haye, however, is of the opinion that there were only about 197.

The Birth of Modern Hybridization

Josephine’s garden was horticulturalist Andre Dupont’s playground. Using controlled pollination, he created at least 25 types of roses while in her employ. His rose garden dabblings would have a profound effect on the variety of roses available.

Within 30 years of Josephine’s death French hybridizers created over 1000 new rose cultivars. Less than 100 years after her death Gravereaux’s astonishing gardens alone would boast 8000 types.

Josephine’s Extraordinary Legacy

Little could Josephine have known the profound impact she would have on roses. Her large estate, zealous efforts of obtaining as many specimens as possible combined with the staff she employed served as a catalyst of sorts helping to bring the world of roses we know and enjoy today.

Josephine’s patronage of roses helped spur on their popularity as garden plants. She also helped to foster a competitive spirit among the elite of society both in France and Britain to outdo each other’s gardens.

The knowledge that was accumulated about rose hybridization at Malmaison was used in gardens all over France and well beyond it’s borders.

The head horticulturist Andre du Dupont, for example, passed on the red flaming torch of rose hybridization to Alexandre Hardy who would later work in the Luxembourg Garden. There he would continue on the work of creating new types of roses including ‘Mme. hardy’ and ‘Safrano’. Hardy in turn took a young assistant under his wing, Jacques-Julien Margottin, who founded his own nursery. Along with his son he kept Josephine’s dream alive and well by continuing to grow and hybridize roses.

She helped introduce ever blooming rose cultivars to France. This was done via her acquisition of Slater’s Crimson China, Parson’s Pink and Hume’s Blush Tea Scented China.

Yet others attribute her with the way roses are named. Instead of using a latinized scientific name vernacular cultivar names were used. So R. alba incarnata assumed the much more feminine name of “Cuisse de Nymphe Emue.”

Thank you, Josephine!

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Image by Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên (Own work) / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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