Empress Josephine rusticating in the Chamonix Valley
Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé. Musées nationaux de Malmaison, France
“You’re interested in botany?” wrote Napoleon to Joseph Banks in 1804. ”So is my wife.”
In 1799, while Napoleon was on his Egyptian Campaign, The Empress Josephine bought a property 7 miles from Paris. It was a terribly large fixer--upper, and caused substantial marital distress on her husband’s return.
The parcel of land was 650 acres. The estate was called Malmaison, and there Josephine set out to create “the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe.” She sponsored plant expeditions around the globe, importing and experimenting with naturalizing eucalyptus, lilies, and over fifty varieties of geranium. She would create gardens on almost half the land, 300 acres.
The number of roses in cultivation in France exploded due to her sponsorship. While England and France were at war, British ships carrying plants destined for her gardens were allowed to pass unhindered. Nurserymen from Kennedy and Lee in London were issued a special passport to guarantee their goods arrived in prime condition! And it was through this nursery Josephine brought the first everblooming China rose to France.
She famously contracted the artist Redoute, who managed the unlikely feat of sustaining his position as court painter for Marie Antoinette, Empress Josephine, and Napoleon’s second wife Marie-Louise as well.
His best-known work is Les Roses, commissioned by Josephine, but he also painted forty-eight Australian native plants growing at Malmaison. Josephine had sponsored a collecting expedition to Australia, then known as New Holland, and thus her garden was much influenced by the bounty of plants and animals arrived in France from that voyage. Zebras, black swans, llamas, kangaroos and gazelles roamed free on warm nights in the gardens.
To Josephine we owe the idea of growing only one plant in a particular garden, in her case the rose. She also initiated the custom of naming a particular rose. Before then roses were referred to simply by their Latin nomenclature. Her passion for new roses encouraged hybridization and, by 1830 there were over 2500 varieties of roses available in Paris!
Like its mistress, Malmaison had a brief but spectacular reign as the crown jewel of the French landscape. Josephine died there in 1814, and although the estate has been renovated in modern times, the grandeur of the gardens departed with their creator.