Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Roses of Chateau Malmaison

Rosa 'Empress Joséphine'

I am again writing about roses, I must be ready for spring to begin!  But, as promised, I wanted to jot down what I've learned about Joséphine Beauharnais and her rose empire at Chateau Malmaison.

Joséphine was not only the Empress of France and the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, she was an avid collector of beautiful rare, and unusual plants.   Joséphine's 18th Century chateau, it's name meaning something to the effect of "estate of bad luck" (I've read it had once housed a leper colony?),  Chateau Malmaison had a wonderful garden which came to be considered the finest of it's day in France.

She introduced many exotic plants to Europe that had been gathered abroad and shipped, literally, back to France during Napoleon's campaigns.  In fact, battles were temporarily halted to allow safe passage of a new specimen then carried back to France.  I've read also that Malmaison featured a heated orangerie filled with hundreds of varieties of pineapples.

Joséphine collaborated successfully with her landscape architect Louis Martin Berthault, in the design of her garden and grounds.   At its height, her extensive rose garden contained in excess of 250 varieties, many lost in modernity.  Her goal was to collect every known rose species, her rosarians hybridizing new varieties constantly.  The tea rose, which is in the parentage of many modern roses, was developed at Malmaison.

Rosa 'Madness at Corsica'

Joséphine and her family are immortalized by their namesake roses. There are two roses in existence named 'Joséphine de Beauharnais', and one named 'Empress Joséphine' shown at top.

Napoleon has three roses to his name. The 'Napoleon' also called 'Madness at Corsica' (1835), bred by Jean Laffay - is named after Napoleon's birthplace of Corsica and, well, possibly Napoleon's general demeanor, although who am I to say.

In addition to the Napoleon and Joséphine roses, there are a pair of cultivars named after Josephine's children.   Jean-Pierre Vibert, the breeder who produced 'Joséphine de Beauharnais', also bred 'Hortense de Beauharnais', another pink rose. During her stepfather's reign, Hortense, who was famed for her beauty and charm, was forced to marry Emporer Napoleon's younger brother, Louis. The marriage was unhappy, but produced Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who went on to rule France as Napoleon III.

Rosa 'Eugene de Beauharnais'

'Eugene de Beauharnais', named after Joséphine's son, is a mauve climber. With its strong fragrance and tendency to bloom repeatedly, 'Eugene' may just be the best of the Bonaparte roses.

Pierre Joseph Redouté
Empress Joséphine commissioned the Belgian botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté to record her roses and other favorite blooms, in a series of plates that immortalized her collection.

The plates illustrated two books by Redoute documenting her collection:  Jardin de Malmaison and Description des Plantes rare cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre, but Redouté's most famous published work was published in 1835, images are below...

Redouté's book "Choix des plus belles Fleurs- 1835"

Plate 132 - Blush Tea China Rose
by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Plate 94 - Peach
by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

While bare root season in Northern California has already passed me by, I may still celebrate spring's arrival by planting a rose for Joséphine.


  1. Hello. I came across your blog via blotanical. This was a very interesting post about roses and history. I'm not really a flower person but I enjoyed your images of the beautiful Bonaparte and Beauharnais roses.

  2. Thank you for stopping by! Well, I love roses and was particularly interested in the Napoleonic roses since I was named after the emperor's pre-Josephine fiancee, Desiree Clary. I was interested in just learning a bit more about it!