One woman above all others, Empress Josephine, incarnates the passion for roses. According to various sources, she was a great rose lover and collector, who probably did more than anyone else to establish and encourage interest in roses throughout Europe. While we can't know for sure if Josephine loved roses more than other flowers and plants, it is roses that her name is associated with.

Josephine and Roses, true history of the Empress

Everything has a history. Though roses have been cultivated and displayed in China for more than 1,000 years, the culture of Rose Gardens has its origins in Paris, France. While it is disputable how many roses were growing in the gardens of Napoleon's Joséphine, it is a well-documented fact that her garden was worthy of a royal and cutting age for its time. There is also no doubt that she made gardens fashionable and that lots of roses were introduced in French gardens during Napoleon's times.

Josephine was a new age woman who displayed her independence of mind by purchasing the lovely park at Malmaison for herself, together with its simple but stylish Château in 1799. She gradually transformed the house and park into an estate of great beauty. She turned the former leper colony into a place fit for a king or, rather, an Empress. But it was the garden that was the piece de resistance.

She also set about avidly studying the subject of botany. It is recorded Napoléon was not very pleased with her for preferring to create an English garden. He was irritated too that so many other people began to emulate her fashionable taste.

At the Château de Malmaison Josephine collected and cultivated plants from all around the world. She planted three flowers that recalled her husband’s conquests; the Lily of the Nile, Parma violets and Damietta roses.

The majority of plants introduced into these gardens were ordered through James Lee and Lewis Kennedy’s Vineyard Nursery at Hammersmith a suburb of London, an establishment known for pioneering many Australian plants.

Josephine’s Roses, josephine the empress of roses, Malmaison rose garden, Josephine Bonaparte rose lover
The only portrait of Josephine with roses

The myth of Josephine roses says that - taking great interest in the captivatingly fragrant thorny plants, Joséphine brought talented gardeners and scores of rose plants to her chateau. Seeking to acquire every known rose, she enlisted the help of her powerful husband, who had all seized vessels searched for specimens, which were imported back to France.

So what is it with Josephine and Roses? She liked roses, of course, and grew them at her beloved Malsimon - along the winding stream, in her cutting garden, in planting boxes brought out at rose time or, if they were rare enough and especially tender, in her several glasshouses for exotics. She even fretted over their care when she was away from the house, writing to her dame de palais, the Countess d'Arberg, to make sure her roses were being properly watered. But there was no rose garden at Malmaison in the time of Josephine.

For over a decade Empress Joesphine’s fifty-meter long greenhouse played an important role in the development of plants and the evolution of botany.

“It is a joy for me“, Josephine said in 1804, “to see foreign plants multiply in our gardens. In ten years time I want every French department to own a collection of precious plants initially grown in our nurseries.”

The Empress wrote to anyone she thought might help in her quest for new plants: local dignitaries, colonial governors, French diplomats abroad, and individuals to whom she proposed exchanges, such as hardy magnolias for seeds from the Duch East Indies. In her letter to Louis-Guillaume Otto, she reminded him of her hope that British King's gardener at Kew might supply some 'curious seeds' despite mounting hostilities between Britain and France.

In records surviving to this day, at least two roses are noted as part of Josephine's efforts to naturalize exotic plants on French soil: an unnamed variety, which flowered constantly and which she thought might be grown outdoors in Nice. The second rose - sent to Toulon in the Midi by Bonpland - was the white "Lady Banks' rose (Rosa banksiae var. banksiae) brought to England from China in 1807 by William Kerr and named in honour of Lady Banks, wife of the eminent naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Thornless, evergreen and flowering profusely in early spring, it is not fully and needs warm sun to flower.

But no roses - not even the new exotics from China - appeared in the two books Josephine commissioned to immortalize he botanic rarities at Malmaison and her estate at Navarre.

The link between Joséphine and roses can also be partially due to her name. When Joséphine was born in 1763, she was given the name Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie. However, she was known simply as Rose until Napoleon came along and insisted on calling her Joséphine.

Josephine’s Roses, josephine the empress of roses, Malmaison rose garden, Josephine Bonaparte rose lover, AI generated
AI art - Joséphine and roses
Josephine’s Roses, josephine the empress of roses, Malmaison rose garden, Josephine Bonaparte rose lover
AI art - Joséphine and roses

Josephine and flower painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté (“Les Roses”)

Josephine’s botanical tastes, as interpreted for his patroness by Redoute the 'Raphael of flowers', had a huge impact on the plants that began to adorn Paris’s public gardens.

Redouté used Empress Josephine’s own garden at Malmaison for inspiration to create “Jardin de la Malmaison” and "Descriptions des Plantes Rares Cultivees a Malmaison". It is not exactly clear inspiration for which roses included in 'Les Roses ' (book with more than 170 beautiful illustrations of a variety of roses) came from Malmaison gardens and which came from other Paris gardens. 'Les Roses ' the work that most obviously celebrates Josephine's love roses - published some years after her death - owns little to her direct influence, as we shall see.

Between 1817 and 1824 three books were published containing what are probably the most famous rose paintings: Redoute's Les Roses. Pierre-Joseph Redouté had spent the time of the Revolution quietly painting and in 1800 was appointed Flower-Painter to the Empress. Josephine undoubtedly inspired Redout's Les Liliacees but Les Roses seems to have been an independent project. The work began to appear only in 1817, three years after Josephine death.

Josephine’s Roses, josephine the empress of roses, Malmaison rose garden, Josephine Bonaparte rose lover, Les roses
Redoute's Les Roses

Josephine is thought to have funded the Pierre-Joseph Redouté series listed below:

1802-16 - Les Liliacees (500 plates of lilies)
1803-05 - Jardin de la Malmaison
1812-17 - Descriptions des Plantes Rares Cultivees a Malmaison
1817-24 - Les Roses (He's best known for his roses. His series of rose paintings are his finest work.)

The author of the accompanying text for Les Roses was Claude Autoine Thory, once a parliamentary lawyer, and now a gifted amateur botanist with a fine rose garden at Belleville on the outskirts of Paris. For several years Redoute and Thory travelled all over France, visiting the best gardens, inspecting, drawing, describing, comparing as many roses as they could find. In total, they prepared rose plates for a relatively modest number of roses: just 170. Yet the volumes contained detail paintings of all the roses available in France at a time. This shows how much the rose family expanded since the 18th century.

They duly recorded their sources in the introduction to the first volume: this included government collection in Paris, Serves and Versailles; and many more gardens, but one name is missing from the list: Josephine's Malmaison, supposedly the garden that brought together all the roses known in France, and intimately familiar to the artist. In the whole series of Les Roses Redoute draws our attention to just two roses he painted there: Rosa Berberifolia and Rosa Gallica.

You can see the magnificent rose blooms recorded between 1817 and 1820 in the Les Roses online at the New York Public Library.

AI art - Malmaison rose garden

What other roses have definitely grown at Malmasoin?

To add more names to the list of roses definitely grown at Malmaison during Josephine times, we must search all surviving garden accounts and notes made by visitors. The French rose expert M. Auguste de Pronville saw a damask rose he identified as Rosa Damascena Carnea, a variety of Scotch rose Rosa Spinosissima, and Rosa Mollisima.

Another French rose expert Francois Jouaux has scoured the National Archives in Paris for other roses definitely grown at Malmaison, identifying wherever possible their modern names. Those include the alpine Rosa pendulina, the Four Seasons rose - Rosa Virginiana, three Moss roses, and a Centifolia rose known as "Unique".

More roses came from one of Malmaison's chief supplier of exotics: the London firm of Lee & Kennedy. We know for sure that four Chinese roses arrived in 1813 that Josephine ordered from Lee & Kennedy. Those were an unidentifiable Rosa Chinensis (a name given to several varieties), lilac-pink Rosa Multiflora "Carnea", Rosa Semperflorens (known in Brittan under the name of "Slater's Crimson China"), and the white Moss rose Rosa Centifolia "Muscosa Alba". She also may have ordered some or all roses from the Lee & Kennedy's handwritten list provided specifically to Josephine of some 220 roses available from this highly praised English supplier of roses and exotic plants.

Josephine commissioned a book about the garden and its plants that was completed three years after her death and published under the title “Jardin de Malmaison-Description des Plantes Rares Cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre” with text by renowned French botanist Etienne-Pierre Vententat. The book contained watercolor images of plants by Redoute and originally appeared in installments. You may be surprised to learn that non of the images in her book were of roses. You can read the book in French or just enjoy magnificent plant drawings by Redoute here.

Curiously, the rose most associated with her garden, the very fragrant Souvenir de la Malmaison was only introduced decades after her death.

Château de Malmaison - Historical images

Château de Malmaison - Le Temple De L'Amour
Château de Malmaison - historical photo
Château de Malmaison - historical photo
Château de Malmaison - drawing
Château de Malmaison - historical photo

Château de Malmaison after Joséphine

Josephine did not survive the end of Napoleon's Empire. She died at Malmaison on 29 May 1814, just before her fifty-second birthday.

Empress left no will, but instead, she left many debts. Her son Eugene de Beauharnais inherited Malmaison but lived in Munich, and began selling off precious objects from the estate to settle the family's debts. The estate was sold within a few years from the death of Eugene, most of the glasshouses were pulled down, and botany came to a halt at Malmaison.

After that, the estate passed through several hands. Malmaison reached its lowest point during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when enemy troops looted the house.

In 1904 enormously wealthy financier Daniel Iffla saved the Malmaison for the nation, he bought and restored the house and the remaining silver park. On his orders, Josephine's rose collection was imaginatively recreated by French rosarian Jules Gravereaux - at his fine garden in L'Hay-Les-Roses (later renamed to Roseraie du Val-de-Marne); at Malmaison itself: and in print in a work illustrated by entirely fictitious plans and engraved views of Empress Josephine's rose garden.

As no catalogue of Josephine's roses existed, rosarian Jules Gravereaux turned to contemporary lists of rose growers such as Du Pont and Descemet for roses supposedly available during the First Empire. As a result, 197 roses were selected and planted in the garden. This is how the myth of Josephine love of roses became a reality.


1.) Musée national des châteaux Malmaison et Bois Préau:

2.) Take images of the garden from -

3.) The Rose: A True History, Book by Jennifer Potter.

4.) - cover image


6.) Portait - La rose de Malmaison: -

6.) Dalle 2 and DeepAI - AI generated images.

If you know of any other sources that document Josephine's rose collection, please let me know in the comments.