See the Movie. Read the Book. Grow the Rose!

The rose Souvenir de la Malmaison growing in my Garden this November morning.

There’s a new biopic in the theaters right now. It’s a film about the famous French General and Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. I don’t see how it’s possible to cover that man’s life in a single film, but my wife and I plan to see it one day. 

My first interest in Napoleon had to do with his wife Josephine. Josephine, and surprisingly Napoleon himself, were very interested in gardening. At her mansion, Malmaison, she decided she wanted to grow all the roses known to be then in cultivation, so roses were brought to her from all over the world. It is said that the English navy would let ships pass through the blockade when they were carrying roses headed for Josephine’s garden. This little bit of information peaked my interest in Antique Roses. (Roses grown before1867 when the first hybrid tea rose was introduced)  As I looked into the subject of Antique Roses, I eventually came upon the rose Souvenir de la Malmaison. If I ever had to pick just one rose to be in my garden, this would be it. 

Souvenir de la Malmaison was not grown by Josephine herself but it was given its name in her honor. Empress Josephine, in her day, was a ‘rock star’ among the French elite. You might think of her as a cross between one of the Kardashians and Princess Diana. She was loved all over the world; and, even during the prolonged war between England and France, she had admirers on both sides of the English Channel. 

You may ask what does the name “Souvenir de la Malmaison” mean? Simply translated it means ‘souvenir of the bad house’. Historians suggest that the land upon which the great estate and gardens were built was once the home of a leper colony. Thus the name ‘bad house’. 

The rose is beautiful and the very sound of its name flows deliciously off one’s tongue. (I have to admit I had to practice pronouncing it for some time). The sound of the name, the rose itself, and the woman for whom it was named are all beautiful. The rose is blooming with its sweet fragrance in my garden on this November morning. 

The rose itself is described as being a classic Bourbon rose with flesh pink blooms. When you look at the rose, it opens flat and is quartered. A quartered rose is difficult to describe, but it is multi-petaled and seems divided into four parts. The rose is timeless in its beauty.

This brings me back to Napoleon, the husband of Josephine. Amazingly enough, Josephine and her husband were fanatically interested in the world of gardens and the science of horticulture.  Even to the very last days of Napoleon’s life when he was exiled to the Isle of St. Helena, the former emperor took spade in hand and gardened. To read the account is sometimes humorous. Napoleon liked to build earthen berms and rows of trees to hide himself from the ever present British soldiers who were his guards. He hated the fact he was always watched. But there on that island he grew vegetables, laid out ornamental gardens with roses, etc. 

By the way Josephine was given the name Rose at her birth, but  Napoleon never referred to her as such. He liked ‘Josephine’. Thus she will ever be remembered as Empress Josephine. Nevertheless, it seems Providential that the rose will always be connected with the Empress. Even today we remember the beautiful rose Souvenir de la Malmaison. 

Note: You might want to look up the fascinating book Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr. If you are looking for a Christmas gift for a gardening friend, this would be perfect.

Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr.

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