As we are coming up to “rose” season, with the early ones already coming out, I have been reading a bit about the history of the Rose Garden. As everyone is taught at school, Josephine married Napoleon and became Empress of France. But did you know that she was much more than that for gardeners – she was also the Queen of Roses. She had a dream to create the greatest rose garden ever made, to collect a specimen of every single rose species and every rose variety growing anywhere in the world at that time.
To contemplate such a task today with all the miracles of modern travel and communications would be a vast operation. To have undertaken such a scheme at the beginning of the 19th century was like reaching for the stars. No aeroplanes, no telephones, no fast ships, no Google! Just war-torn France locked in a mighty struggle with the rest of Europe.
Yet she succeeded, and on the outskirts of Paris the world’s first great rose garden was created, and was called Malmaison.
Josephine gathered around her some of the great botanists of the time, to source the plants, and engaged Pierre-Joseph Redoutė to record the roses for posterity. After divorce from Napoleon in 1810, she moved permanently to Malmaison and devoted herself to her plants.
Malmaison contained about 250 different types of roses. If you could go back in time to 1810, you might have been disappointed, as you would have seen none of the vibrant colours, the repeat flowering and compact bushes of a modern rose garden. They would have been large, spreading bushes with a single flush of flowers each year. There would have been Gallica roses, the classic red rose, also tough Rugosa roses, Blood roses from China and Virginia roses from America. The finest would have been the Damask roses, but nearly all would have been white, pink and red.
There were just one or two dull yellow or dark orange roses from Persia – and these were the ones which were eventually to produce most of our modern colourful varieties.
Malmaison gardens are no more, they were destroyed in the Prussian War in 1870. They live on in the paintings of Redoutė and in his volumes of Les Roses.