Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Empress Josephine's Legacy

Old Garden Roses

I love gardening and I love writing, so I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that the two come together time and time again in amazing ways.

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 had over 150 different Gallica cultivars in her collection, and the rich burgundy-colored Gallica roses were the 'darlings' of the Regency period.

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.

Sadly, after Josephine’s death in 1814, Malmaison quickie fell into neglect, but roses still passed from Britain to France. But many of the men who trained at Malmaison went on to become famous rose hybridizers. They established France as the premiere country in rose-breeding.

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.

Amy Corwin


Beth Caudill said...

I'm grateful for her efforts. I love my roses.

I have to say I'm not as fond of the Old English roses because of all the little petals. I like the Hybrid Tea petals better.

But a large garden with those huge blooms is nice to look at.

Lilly Gayle said...

Your roses are beautiful, Amy. And I love the way you work the knowledge of roses into your stories.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Amy, what a lovely post. Roses are my favorite flower and pink my favorite color. I used to have 46 in my garden before our water well (we live in a rural area) got too low on water to keep them healthy. I plant the new Earthkind roses now, but I still have three of the antique roses that survived because they're over our septic lines. If we had a better well, I'd had dozens of roses again.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

The fragrance of old roses is truly beautiful. I've always found Josephine's story rather sad and promised myself that if ever I get to France I'll visit Malmaison.
Thanks for this lovely post.

jean hart stewart said...

What a fun post. I love learning new stuff, especially about that period of history. I have two historicals set in the Napoleonic era and wish I'd known about the roses......Jean

L M Gonzalez said...

My first book, which was a contemporary one, had to feature a rose garden. I don't have a green thumb at all. So, I had to do research on rose gardening. Someday, though, I would like to try my hand at a flower garden.

Great post!

Anna Small said...

I love Josephine, and had no idea about the roses! My mother ordered the Princess of Wales rosebush and it's still growing here in Florida! They are the Empress of Flowers, I guess!