Many stories can be told about Château de Malmaison, the 19th century home of Napoleon and Josephine on the outskirts of Paris. Probably, none are more significant than Josephine’s garden and the legacy of horticultural accomplishments that she left France.
Josephine Bonaparte (1763-1814), wife of Napoleon, was an amateur botanist and natural historian. In 1799, she and Napoleon acquired the run-down Château de Malmaison, on the outskirts of Paris.
Josephine spent thousands of francs developing the property, in particular the grounds. Her passion for rare, beautiful and exotic plants led to the creation of extensive greenhouses, rose gardens, and nurseries.
At the end of the 18th century, revolution had disposed of royalty and aristocratic power. With this came new fashion, not least in gardens. The formal style of Versailles gave way to a new and liberated informality.
Josephine modelled her garden on the English style with winding paths and irregular shapes, with the help of head gardener, Scotsman Alexander Howatson (replaced in 1805 by Felix Delahaye). Napoleon lamented to his architect, Pierre Leonard Fontaine:
How silly to spend fortunes creating little lakes, little rocks and little rivers…my jardin à l’anglaise is the forest at Fontainebleau, and I want no other.Napoleon Bonaparte
In short, Napoleon preferred nature as it was, not something contrived. Bourienne, Napoleon’s secretary, recounts how Bonaparte liked to walk in Bois Préau, a large unembellished wood opposite the gates of Château de Malmaison, and which was part of the original estate.
Josephine was passionate about her plant collection and even competed for specimens with other institutions. Botanists, who accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns, were also sources of supply. She even shared expenses with an English firm for the transport of South African plants.
During the Napoleonic Wars, ships carrying specimens for Josephine were allowed free passage. Between 1803 and 1814, she introduced hundreds of species of plants to Europe.
Just four months after coming to power as First Consul, in March 1800 Napoleon authorised the Baudin expedition to Australia, with special instructions to bring back plants and animals. However, an earlier connection between Josephine and Australia had been established through her chief gardener, Felix Delahaye.
Felix Delahaye was the gardener on the Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux voyage to south-western Australia and Tasmania in 1791–93 on which the botanist Labillardière collected over two hundred new plants.
On his return from Australia in 1797, Delahaye worked first at Le Trianon, on the restoration of Marie Antoinette’s old garden at Versailles, then at Versailles itself, and finally in 1803 at Malmaison. Armed with this experience he was able to cultivate what he had collected.
Apart from Delahaye and Baudin, numerous botanists, including Sir Joseph Banks, contributed to the French-Australian connection.
Josephine introduced several Australian trees to France, including acacia, melaleuca and eucalyptus, and propagated many other Australian plant species. Her garden also included several species of animals collected from Baudin’s voyages, including kangaroos, emus and black swans.
The kangaroos did not last long due to the European climate. However, the black swans thrived, roaming the gardens freely.
After his exile to the island of Saint Helena, Napoleon planted two Australian specimens to remind him of Josephine and Malmaison: the Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia) and the Australian Golden Everlasting (Bracteantha bracteata). Both species survive on the island today.
Although the garden at Malmaison was crowded with everything from scented tropical gardenias and orchids from the Americas to the newly arrived plants from temperate Australia, Josephine’s real passion, which amounted almost to an obsession, were roses.
Josephine set out to collect every type of rose grown in the world. At the time, that was thought to be about 250. We don’t know how successful her quest was because when she died in 1814, no inventory of roses was left behind.
However, what does exist is a pictorial record of at least some of the roses because Josephine commissioned an artist, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, to make engravings of her roses and they are amongst the most exquisite botanical images ever produced.
Josephine poured vast amounts of money into this pictorial record, culminating in the publication of Jardin de la Malmaison. It was published between 1803 and 1805 in twenty parts with 120 plates. Redouté’s paintings were acclaimed across Europe and gained greater recognition for Malmaison.
A subsequent book by Redouté, Les Roses, was published in three volumes between 1817 and 1824.
When Josephine died, fifteen years after its purchase, the Malmaison estate had grown through acquisitions to 726 hectares. After her death, the 726-hectare estate fell into disrepair and eventually fragmented.
While Josephine’s historical collection did not survive, her botanical legacy did survive. She was the first person in Europe to collect roses systematically; she generously sent cuttings and root stocks to parks and towns throughout France to create rose gardens for everyone; by the end of the 19th century, the French were the world’s leading rose breeders.
Few roses are left at Malmaison. However, at Roseraie de L’Haÿ, some 28km away, a magnificent collection exists, brought together by rose enthusiast, Jules Gravereaux, at the end of the 19th century.
Gravereaux purchased a large property in L’Haÿ, south of Paris, in 1892 and hired landscape architect and horticulturist Édouard André to lay out a garden containing 1600 roses. Today, the Roseraie de L’Haÿ features 3200 species of roses, including those illustrated by Redouté. Yes, you can see them in the flesh.
Only six of the original 726 hectares of Château de Malmaison estate are left today, but understanding the history of Malmaison makes one’s visit all that more meaningful.
To stand under the original Cedar of Lebanon that Napoleon and Josephine planted to commemorate Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800 provides a glimpse of the legacy that Napoleon and Josephine left behind.
Château de Malmaison
Avenue du Château de Malmaison, 92500 Rueil-Malmaison
+33 1 41 29 05 55
Hours: 10h00 to 12h30 and 13h30 to 17h15 (longer closing hours weekends and summer)
Access: RER(A) train to La Défense and Bus 258 to Le Château