Old Garden Roses
For years I struggled to grow the modern Hybrid Teas—you know, those “florist-style” roses—and failed miserably. They always got blackspot and died within a year or two. Desperate, I started researching roses and somewhere along the way, fell in love with Old Garden Roses, that is, roses hybridized prior to 1900. To have survived over the years (and in some cases centuries) these stalwart survivors of the garden wars had to be tough. And although many varieties only bloom once a year, when they bloom, they really bloom!
Interestingly enough, it was the Empress Josephine who really spurred on rose gardening and hybridization, and reading about her gardens at Malmaison made me love the older varieties of roses even more. Not to mention their inspiration to write romances set in that period—the early years of the 19th century, frequently referred to as the Regency. Unlike contemporary roses, Old Garden Roses are lush and full of soft petals when they fully open, and most have extraordinary fragrance that can fill an entire room.
Is it any wonder that I frequently set scenes in my Regency romances, like I Bid One American, in rose gardens?
The Empress Josephine collected roses for her gardens at the Chateau de la Malmaison from 1805 to 1810. This collection spurred on an interest in the culture of roses that lead to some of the most important work in rose hybridization during the 19th century.
The French writer, De Pronville, stated that in 1814, there were only about 182 varieties of roses. However, by mid-century, there were over 6,000 varieties! And the competition to grow new varieties was so intense that clients of hybridizers often got into fist fights when limited numbers of new specimens were available. (My free read, Rose Wars, is about one such fight!)
The Empress Josephine's goal with Malmaison was to obtain every species of rose then known. Napoleon instructed the French Navy to seize any plants or rose seeds they found when they searched ships at sea. In just one year, Josephine spent close to 2,600 pounds with the English nursery of Kennedy and Lee, despite the war with Britain. And despite the naval blockade, the British Admiralty granted a safe-conduct pass to the Kennedy and Lee firm to deliver the new China Roses to Malmaison. The Englishman Kennedy was employed by the Empress to assist them in laying out her rose garden and interestingly enough, there was one plan (never used) that laid out a rose garden in a design close to the Union Jack.
So Josephine set the standard for rose gardening for a very long time. All the wealthy French followed her lead and many joined in the competition to see who could amass the largest collection. Her biggest rival was the Countess of Bougainville, who tried to amass as many new roses as possible. It is no surprise that economically, the rose became the most important flower in France.
It was a fascinating period in history, and after finally finding roses that will flourish and bloom in my garden, I’m grateful to the Empress Josephine and all the men and women who worked so hard to make the rose truly the Queen of the Garden.