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“Let no one think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation. It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which we a give our heart.”  

blue white and red poppy flower field

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on

Drive, inspiration, enthusiasm, tools and plants at the ready-check. What is missing is fine weather? Incessant rain, cold, bleak and cloudy days mean few moments suitable for gardening, but not to be deterred; these days are perfect for more detailed planning. On days like these, the creative mind can endlessly design the ultimate garden on paper, which is necessary for my attempts at layering the garden. I’m having a go and trying to improve the tapestry of the garden with several new shrubs, grasses and wide varieties of perennials and bulbs.

Compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence.

Henry Mitchell

Drawing up garden plans is an escape, but I’m raring to go and get stuck into the outdoors as soon as possible. What feels like overnight, the garden has changed from late autumn to winter, and many roses have now lost their leaves and started to go dormant. Dappled through the garden are the soft sensual purplish heads of all the French Lavender that brings a quiet gracefulness to the garden. The grey-green textured foliage and flower heads are a welcome sight amongst the few late-blooming roses.

One trait all gardeners possess and share in common is the love of nature. Being in, walking through, surrounding oneself and working with nature is at the core of what all gardeners are about. Whether as a nerdy rare plant collector or a cottage garden enthusiast, a rose, cactus, bulb, orchid, or pelargonium specialist or prefer a naturalistic wild garden, formal garden or Potager garden. Every garden is unique and personal; we are intimately connected to our gardens, so we should plant whatever we we want for our own pleasure regardless of what others may think, or current trends and traditions.

we all should be gardening in the way that makes us most comfortable, that most excites us” 

Casein Smidt

Roses are my first love and will remain my primary focus even with all the new plantings that are in essence only a background to the roses. Besides the gorgeous blooms, I also adore the rich history, romance, stories and intrigue of roses; their names and rose breeding.

One passionate rose collector with a memorable story is that of La Malmaison and Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie known as the ‘Empress Joséphine’. She was born in Les Trois-Îlets, a town on the Caribbean island of Martinique, in 1763. Her life was extraordinary yet sad as she was a widow when she married Napolean Bonaparte (her husband Alexandre de Beauharnais was beheaded during the Reign of Terror and was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until five days after his execution). Josephine retreated to her private residence at Malmaison, where she created one of the world’s first and most splendid rose gardens. After marrying Napolean in 1796, she purchased La Malmaison when Bonaparte was away in Egypt. He later would gift her the property when they separated in 1810. Napoleon arranged for the nullification of the marriage because a parish priest had not been present at the ceremony enabling him to leave Joséphine without having to divorce because she didn’t provide an heir.

When Joséphine first bought Malmaison in 1799, it was a dilapidated Chateau on 650 acres. Joséphine redesigned the garden with the help of a succession of four landscape garden designers over five years, eventually finding Louis-Martin Berthault. He expanded the gardens in an English style to feature rolling hills, sweeping vistas, winding paths, cottages, pavilions and grottoes. Napolean increased the estate to 4,500 acres of vineyards, gardens, wheat fields and woodlands.

Empress Joséphine adored roses and wanted to acquire every rose in the world for her gardens. Her main source for roses was the Lee and Kennedy Vineyard Nursery in London. In 1804, she was in proud possession of the new Chinese roses: Slater’s Crimson China, Parson’s Pink and Hume’s Blush Tea Scented China. These were “everblooming roses” that were imported from China to England and known as stud roses; the parents of the modern everblooming rose cultivars. This was a triumph for the Empress and France to have these roses growing at Malmaison.

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

In 1804 now Empress of France, Joséphine had unlimited resources to acquire the best plants and roses for her beloved gardens that even the French-English wars did not prevent her sourcing. When the English gardeners were transporting her plants they were issued passports and safe passage through military blockades to deliver them.

Joséphine competed with the Museum of Natural History for plant specimens gathering plants for her garden from the botanists who accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns. Ships carrying specimens during the Napoleonic wars were allowed free passage which bought hundreds of plants to Europe between 1803 and 1814. Her pioneer work included the planting of species and the collection of animals from around the world including much-loved varieties from NSW – acacia, melaleuca, boronias, eucalyptus, casuarinas and other Australian plants. Kangaroos, emu’s and black swans were bought back to France from Australia by explorer and plant hunter Nicolas Thomas Baudin. Malmaison also had an aviary, a farm for merino sheep and a menagerie. Empress Joséphine’s magnificent fifty-metre-long greenhouse played an important role in the evolution of botany and the development of plants at the time.

“It is a joy for me, to see foreign plants multiply in our gardens. In ten years time I want every French department to own a collection of precious plants initially grown in our nurseries.”

Empress Joséphine

Andre du Pont the director of the Jardins de Luxembourg in Paris was Josephine’s head horticulturist, who bred many new roses and made the worldwide search for roses possible. In 1813 his roses numbered 200 different new varieties at Malmaison. Not only did Empress Joséphine love roses herself, but she started a trend toward rose cultivation across France, growing them for beauty rather than medicinal reasons. Although it is hard to imagine that Josphine actually gardened herself, she did oversee a team of gardeners and horticulturalists and spent time avidly studying botany.

You have gathered around you the rarest plants growing on French soil. Some indeed, which never before left the deserts of Arabia or the burning sands of Egypt, have been domesticated through your care. Now, regularly classified, they offer to us, as we inspect them in beautiful gardens of Malmaison, an impressive reminder of the conquests of your illustrious consort

Chief botanist, Étienne Pierre Ventenat (1757–1808), 

New techniques of hybridising and propagation became popular for professionals as well as an amateur gardeners. France especially in Paris and Lyon became known as ‘The Cradle of Roses’, with Parisian nurseries offering 2,500 rose varieties inspired by the Empress and the Chateau La Malmaison.

The love of roses for Joséphine also had a personal significance because when she met Boneparte in 1796, he asked her to forsake her name – Rose, calling her instead – Joséphine. Her passion for roses reclaimed her name and her mother’s name Marie-Rose.

Some of her gardens were devoted solely to roses, an innovation that has continued for centuries. The famous botanist and artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute was commissioned to illustrate each of her rose specimens, and the leading botanists of her time described the plant illustrations. Redoute illustrated about 250 of the more than 500 roses known to have grown at La Malmaison and the rose illustrations we know so well today, are said to be his most famous works.

Unfortunately, Joséphine never enjoyed the incredible work of Redoute’s roses as she died in 1814 from pneumonia, evidently after walking with the Russian Czar Alexander in her gardens. Joséphine and her La Malmaison garden are highlighted in a book entitled Jardin de la Malmaison, with coloured illustrations by her friend, Pierre Josephe Redoute.

After her death at the Malmaison, inventories reveal that Joséphine introduced into France for the first time many new plant varieties like camellias, geraniums, cacti, rhododendrons, phlox, myrtles, dahlias and magnolias. Her incredible greenhouse showcased her passion for new plant species and propagating new species from all over the world. It was fifty metres in length and heated by twelve carbon stoves for her acclimatisation work, highlighting the popularity of botanical plant collections at that time. Apart from being an extensive collection of roses at La Malmaison, Josephine’s rose garden was important for France because her collection encouraged French hybridisers to continue to develop new varieties. By 1830 up to 2,500 different rose varieties were available for rose lovers in Paris, all influenced by Joséphine’s passion for collecting roses.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s school of botanical drawing Jardin des Plantes, 1830, Julie Ribault, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, Public Domain via WikiCommons

Joséphine’s life was short, but her passion for roses endures as the rose is considered the French Flower and France is one of the world leaders in rose production and exporting of roses. In the book “Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist: The Duchess of Hamilton says of Joséphine

The curiosity that Joséphine showed for the natural sciences, especially botany, reveal an open mind and not, as her detractors like to portray, a frivolous one.

Souvenir La Malmaison Rose

The rose named after the Château de Malmaison is “Souvenir de la Malmaison” is a Bourbon rose, bred in 1843 by Jean Béluze, Lyon France. It is a bushy, almost thornless beautiful rose although, it does ball in wet weather, nonetheless, has exquisite flesh pink blooms, likes dry weather and grows up to 180 cm tall. In 1988, it was added to the Old Rose Hall of Fame by the World Federation of Rose Societies. Souvenir La Malmaison rose is available from Wagners and Treloars rose nurseries in Australia.

“Altogether the most perfect and superb rose of this or any other class . . Its flowers are cupped, and of very perfect form, very double, with thick velvety petals. . Its large and very luxuriant foliage, compact habit, and flowers of exceeding beauty, render this one of the very finest roses known.” Samuel B. Parsons.

“Magnificent foliage—very large and distinct—a superb rose . . The flowers are frequently immensely large, borne on erect stout footstalks, with broad and beautiful foliage deeply serrated, giving to the whole plant a remarkably noble appearance.”

Henry Curtis in Beauties of the Rose.

Title quote by Karel Capek

Content Di Baker 2022

Antique plant images by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840 )

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