The first Gallicas raised in France 1804-1815 by François Joyaux

Up to the end of the 18th century the gallica garden varieties seem scarcely to have been appreciated in France. Botanists were only interested in Rosa gallica, named thus by Linnaeus in 1759 because a specimen had been sent to him from France.

So far as growers were concerned, they were interested only in R. gallica ‘officinalis’, which had been produced in large numbers and over a long period in the Provins region for medicinal purposes. It was hardly accepted that the magnificent R. gallica ‘versicolor’ – called ‘Rosa Mundi’ in England – had a role to play in garden decoration: however, a nurseryman like Filassier at Clamart near Paris offered it in his 1785 catalogue at a price five times that of simple R. gallica. (All references relating to facts alluded to in this article are to be found in our book La Rose de France, Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1998, pp295.)

In fact, the roses most valued for their ornamental interest were the ‘Roses de Hollande à cent feuilles’ – that is to say R. centifolia and the garden varieties that had arisen from it. For example, in that same year 1785, a nurseryman like Jacques-Louis Descemet (1761-1839) based in Paris, rue de l’Arbalète, who had just inherited the nursery from his parents, cultivated 6,000 ornamental roses; of this total, 4,500 were centifolias. On the other hand he had scarcely any gallicas, except for ‘Petit Saint François’, which is Lindley’s R. parvifolia.

Varieties from Holland

The Dutch had sown seeds for a very long time, probably from the beginning of the 17th century – and exported them with their centifolias. There were a few nurserymen based in France who specialised in importing these roses.

A nurseryman like François, established in Paris, offered for sale a collection of 195 roses in 1790, a very considerable number at that time. Several dozen came from Holland. He even put them into commerce in Paris under their Dutch names: ‘A gaat Roos’, ‘Keizers-Roos’ etc.

These gallica imports went on throughout the beginning of the 19th century in particular when Holland (with present day Belgium) was linked with France. Thus in 1820 Thory (editor of the texts accompanying Redouté’s Les Roses) was to write : ‘Dutch catalogues contain the names of 500 varieties or sub-varieties of gallica.’

In fact it was under the First Empire (1804-1815) that the fashion for gallicas really developed. It is in great part explained by the political circumstances. For French relations with foreign countries were reduced to a very low level. The ‘Compaignie Française des Indes’ had long since disappeared; French possessions in America had been lost – the vastness of Louisiana, covering 16 present day US states – had been sold in 1803. And the ‘continental blockade’ did more to cut off France from the rest of the world than it did England from the continent.

In consequence all the new roses coming in from North America and above all from the Far East were readily to be found in England, but remained rare in France. Also, quite naturally, French nurserymen concentrated their effort on propagating the varieties available to them, of which gallicas were in the front rank. It was at this time that they truly became the ‘Rose de France’.

At the end of the First Empire, in 1815, there were some 500 gallica varieties available in France. Of this total, half came from the Low Countries (including present day Belgium).

Certain of the nurserymen who exported to France are known: Corneille Stergerhoek at Norwyck, Yweins at Courtrai, François at Brussels (same family as the François of Paris?), Verleeuwen at Ghent, et al. On arrival in France, it is clear that these Dutch gallicas received French names.

We have verified 15 which definitely or probably originated in the Low Countries and which are still in cultivation today: ‘Aimable amie’, ‘Belle Parade’ (before 1811), ‘Belle sans flatterie’ (before 1806), ‘Bizarre triomphant’ (syn. ‘Charles de Mills’)(before 1790), ‘Bouquet charmant’ (before 1811), ‘Carmin brillant’, ‘Grande et belle’ (before 1811), ‘La Belle Sultane’, ‘La majestuese’ (before 1790), ‘Lustre d’eglise’ (before 1790), ‘Napoleon’ (before 1790) ‘Ombre superbe’ (before 1811), ‘Ornement de la nature’,(before 1814), ‘Soleil Brillant’ (before 1790), and ‘Velours poupre’ (before 1811).

Scarcely half remain in commerce. Two however are commonly available – namely ‘Charles de Mills’ and ‘La Belle Sultane’. The first, fully double, is a marvel of harmony and formal arrangement;, the second, on the contrary, is a single and in this lies its charm. Most of these varieties are at L’Haÿ-les-Roses and they all of these feature in the author’s collection.

The other gallicas of the First Empire were actually raised in France and thus constituted the first gallicas that were truly French.

Gallica collections

The first great gallica collections (and of roses in general) were on the one hand those of the Empress Josephine and on the other those of the four great nurserymen in the region of Paris, namely Vilmorin and Du Pont in Paris itself, Codefroy at Ville d’Avray and Descemet at Saint- Denis, close to the capital.

Of the Empress’s collection, absolutely nothing is known. When, on her death in 1814, an inventory was made of all her plants, her collection of roses was not included; or perhaps the inventory has since been lost. What is quite certain is that Du Pont sold roses to her; he is the only French rosarian of which there is mention in the archives at La Malmaison, the chateau of Napoleon and Josephine.

However, Du Pont, as with Vilmorin and Codefroy too, probably did not raise any (or few?) varieties themselves. They were most probably only importers of Dutch varieties. The case with Du Pont would be clearer if one could consult his 1809 catalogue: unfortunately, it is still undiscovered in some public library or other.

So it remains that the only nurseryman of the First Empire who was a great raiser of gallicas is Jacques-Louis Descemet, mentioned above. (Those who would like more details of his life and the plants he raised should see our two articles published about him, in the magazine Hommes et plantes, no. 25 Spring and 26, Summer 1998).

He belonged to a very old family of nurserymen who rose to prominence in the 17th century and who, from father to son, had been in charge in Paris of the ‘Jardin des apothicaires’. For political reasons, he set up a base close to the capital at Saint-Denis. It was there that between 1804-1814 he sowed large numbers of gallicas and raised a number of new varieties. At the fall of the Empire, he left France to settle in southern Russia, at Odessa, a new town organised by the French.

Descemet’s seedlings were perfectly well known by Vibert, his successor, who later was honest enough to list them in his catalogues with the name of their raiser.

Moreover, Vibert was to write as follows: ‘In 1810 Monsieur Descemet who had a special interest in this flower, was the man who brought together the greatest number’. In 1814-15, Descemet’s collection totalled 250 species and varieties, of which two thirds were gallicas raised by him.

In his catalogues of 1819, 1820, 1822 and 1824 Vibert listed a total of 209 plants raised by Descemet. Of this number, 143 were gallicas; that is to say the bulk of varieties at that time. Of those 143 gallicas, a dozen which can be attributed to Descemet with a reasonable degree of certainty are still in cultivation:

  • Adèle, before 1815
  • Belle poupre violette, before 1811
  • (Belle) Biblis, before 1815
  • Fanny Bias, before 1811 Belle flore, before 1813
  • Impératrice Joséphine, before 1815
  • Belle Galathée, before 1815
  • La gloire des jardins, before 1815
  • Belle Hélène, before 1815
  • Le grand sultan, before 1815

Descemet called Fanny Bias ‘Athalie’; it was Vibert who named it ‘Fanny Bias’.

A dozen of these are perhaps Descemet-raised plants but they are subject to a variety of uncertainties.

On the evidence some are attributable to Descemet, but the current specimens in the various public collections we have examined do not correspond to the contemporary descriptions. Also it is not at all certain that these varieties are still in cultivation. It is the case with ‘Cynthie’ at Sangerhausen and ‘d’Euphrosine’ (I’Elegante), ‘Nouveau monde’, ‘Passe-velours’ and ‘Roi des pourpres’ at L’Haÿ-les-Roses.

Others, also gallicas but of later provenance, bear the names of those raised by Descemet, so that today one can never be sure which of these varieties is in cultivation. This is the case with ‘Eucharis’: another ‘Eucharis’ was raised by Vibert in 1822. It is the same with ‘Minerve’: another ‘Minerve’ was raised by Jacquemet-Bonnefont, nurseryman at Annonay in 1831-32. Yet again with ‘Héloise’, arising from the confusion created by the other two ‘Héloises’, a gallica and a moss, raised by Vibert in 1834 and 1845.

in classification make the authentification of these old varieties peculiarly complex. This is the case with ‘Nouveau Rouge’, classified at L’Hay as an Alba.

In total, there remain a dozen Descemet gallicas, and perhaps a dozen others which are uncertain. But the central point is that during this almost ‘prehistoric’ period for French gallicas, Descernet is the only rosarian of whom one can be quite sure that he was a great raiser of new varieties.

Of the other famous rosarians of that time – Vilmorin, Codefroy or Du Pont – we cannot be sure precisely which, if any, plants they raised – it is only the importance of their collections that is duly acknowledged. In this respect, Descemet is truly the first great French raiser with more than 200 rose varieties of which three quarters are gallicas.

Vibert (1777-1866) was to be his worthy successor, as between 1815 and 1851 he was to raise more than 600 new varieties, of which a majority were gallicas.

Professor Joyaux is Vice President of the Friends of the Roseraie de L’Haÿ-les-Roses and a member of the jury for new roses at the Bagatelle garden in Paris. His recently published book, La Rose de France, describes more than 200 varieties of gallicas.

Translation by Maurice Foster.

This article appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue.