Valentine’s Day has just passed, and if you were lucky, someone you love gave you roses to celebrate the occasion. All the romance and fragrance in the air bring to mind one of history’s great love stories-that of Napoleon and Josephine. Naturally the whole tale is full of roses.
It is fitting that Josephine began life with a rose in her name. Born on the flowery island of Martinique in 1763, she was christened Marie Josephine Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. At the tender age of 16 she married a French nobleman, Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais, and sailed off to France. Josephine had two children by Beauharnais, Eugene and Hortense. The latter was also named after a flower; the hortensia, known more familiarly as the “mophead” hydrangea.
Life was not easy for Josephine during the French Revolution. The Vicomte de Beauharnais was executed during the Reign of Terror, and she was imprisoned, barely escaping with her head. In 1796, two years after her husband’s death, Josephine married Napoleon Bonaparte, the great love of her life. He crowned himself Emperor in 1804, crowning Josephine immediately thereafter.
Rose lovers everywhere know about Josephine’s famous garden at Malmaison, her country house. She bought the dwelling in 1798, while Napoleon was campaigning in Egypt, presumably so he wouldn’t fret about the cost until his victorious and euphoric return. Once the house was purchased, Josephine did what any gardener would have done in her place-she began filling the grounds with all the rare and expensive flowering plants that she could get her hands on. As she acquired plants, she also acquired an artist to immortalize them. Joseph Pierre Redouté, the greatest botanical artist of his day (and one of the greatest of all time), went to work for the Empress, who reportedly paid him the princely sum of 18,000 francs per year.
Two books, Jardin de Malmaison (The Garden of Malmaison), and Description des Plantes rare cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre ( Description of the rare plants grown at Malmaison and at Navarre,) documented the contents of Josephine’s gardens. Both were illustrated by Redouté, who later went on to publish his most famous work, Les Roses.
Unfortunately all the roses in the world could not provide Napoleon with what he most wanted-a male heir. He divorced Josephine in 1809 to marry a woman who was less celebrated but more fertile. Not surprisingly, Josephine retired to her house and garden at Malmaison, where she died in 1814. Like many gardeners, she evidently bought a lot on credit. At the time of her death, her debts reportedly amounted to 2 ½ million francs.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he returned to Malmaison one last time, paid his respects to the memory of the woman he loved, and bid farewell to her children. He was exiled to the island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.
Rose lovers are fortunate that the Emperor and his fabled consort live on in roses. There are two roses in existence named ‘Josephine de Beauharnais’, and one named ‘Empress Josephine’. All have light pink blossoms and were bred in France, but only one seems to have been introduced before Josephine’s death.
Napoleon is celebrated in the names of three roses, two of which are pink, and one is a mauve blend. The ‘Napoleon’ introduced by the rose breeder Jean Laffray, is also sometimes known as ‘Madness at Corsica’. Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica, but rose authorities never specify whether the “madness” in question was what made him so meglomaniacal.
In addition to the Napoleon and Josephine roses, there is a pair of cultivars named after Josephine’s children. Jean-Pierre Vibert, the breeder who produced ‘Josephine 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 the Emperor’s younger brother, Louis. The marriage was unhappy, but produced Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who went on to rule France as Napoleon III.
‘Eugene de Beauharnais’, named after Josephine’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.
When spring finally gets here, you might want to celebrate by planting a rose bed dedicated to the Emperor and his family. You can purchase ‘Napoleon’, a fragrant pink-blend climber, from Chamblee’s Rose Nursery (800/256-ROSE or online at www.chambleesroses.com). Only one of the ‘Josephine’ roses is still in commerce, and it is only available in France, but you can purchase ‘Hortense de Beauharnais’ from Amity Heritage Roses (707/768-2040 or online at www.AmityHeritageRoses.com). ‘Eugene de Beauharnais’ is widely available from mail order nurseries including The Uncommon Rose (541/753-8871 or online at http://www.uncommonrose.com).
Empires may rise and fall, but roses and romance go on forever.
by E. Ginsburg