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Influential Gardener Empress Josephine

Napoleon may have cast Empress Josephine aside for a trophy wife. Yet, he couldn’t erase her influence in the world of gardening. To this day, we still have plants that are named in her honor.

Born in 1763, Josephine grew up on the island of Martinique. It is likely her love of plants and animals was due to her upbringing in this island paradise. At the age of 16, she left the lush tropics and moved to France with her family.

Josephine was an avid plant collector. With the help of many sympathetic folks around the world, she continued to add to her collections. Those helping included botanists, nurserymen, and natural history scholars.

She was a patron of renowned artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840), and paid him an annual salary. She commissioned the water colors for which he is now so widely known. His paintings set the standards for other botanical artists.

Among the books that Redoute did for Josephine was an eight volume set on the Lily family. This was completed in 1816, two years after her death. Another volume featured 170 of her roses.

One of Josephine’s favorite flowers was the rose. She collected over 250 kinds, and was responsible for naming some of those. She is credited with laying the groundwork for France’s role as a leader in rose breeding.

Josephine is best known for her garden in Roueil outside Paris, the Chateau de la Malmaison. Known as Malmaison, she acquired this in 1798/99. It featured a winding stream that flowed into a lake.

Rather than a private pleasure garden, Malmaison was more like a botanical garden with the purpose of cultivating and collecting the plants from a scientific point of view. She also had a menagerie with rare animals.

Though the Malmaison Palace has become a national museum, little remains of Josehine’s gardens. Luckily, we still have records of what the gardens were like.

Josephine commissioned a book about the garden and its plants. This was completed three years after her death. It was 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. This had 175 watercolors by Redoute, and originally appeared in installments.

The entire story of Malmaison is beautifully told in a monumental book by H. Walter Lack. “Jardin de la Malmaison-Empress Josephine’s Garden” was published by Prestel. This large coffee-table size format does justice to Redoute’s color plates. This book also has an essay by Marina Heilmeyer, which explains the status of Malmaison today.

This special edition comes in a beautifully illustrated slip cover. It gives a complete history and use of the property from pre-Josephine times to the present. It devotes a section to each time period. Particular attention is devoted to the renovation and landscape redesign carried out by Josephine.

From this book, readers will get a glimpse of what life was like at Malmaison. It explains how Josephine carefully selected leading horticulturists and botanists of the day to help design and document the gardens and plants. This volume includes a list of the plants that were grown there.

This also reprints a lively account written by a German author who visited Malmaison in 1809.

This volume includes reproductions of 120 from the original book commissioned by Josephine, “Jardin de la Malmaison.” Each plate gives the Latin name of the plant. Among the depicted plants are rare ones, such as the Franklinia tree, along with many that are still grown today.

This book is also illustrated with historic paintings of the house and grounds. There are also color photos of the property today.

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