In 1799, while Napoleon was away on campaign in Egypt, Josephine purchased the estate of Malmaison with borrowed funds. Though she later became mistress of Versailles, Tuileries, Fountainebleau and Saint-Cloud, Malmaison was her primary home. She modelled the gardens in English style with winding paths, bridges, temples and cottages, and hired as head gardener Scotsman Alexander Howatson (replaced in 1805 by Felix Delahaye). Napoleon did not share her taste, preferring to walk in his own private garden at Malmaison.
Josephine collected plants competitively, vying with the Museum of Natural History for specimens. She gathered plants for her garden from the botanists who accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns as well as from other voyagers: Nicolas Baudin (who explored the Pacific and Australia), and Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland (both of whom explored South America). She even shared expenses with the English firm Lee & Kennedy of Hammersmith for the collection and transport of South African plants.
During the Napoleonic Wars, ships carrying specimens for Josephine were allowed free passage. Between 1803 and 1814 hundreds of species of plants were introduced to Europe. Josephine pioneered the planting of acacia, melaleuca and eucalyptus throughout France and propagated many species of Australian plants.
Josephine’s garden at Malmaison included many species of animals collected from Baudin’s voyages, including kangaroos, emus and black swans. The first kangaroo arrived in 1804, only one of three on board Le Géographe to survive. Others were donated to Josephine over time, but they did not respond well to the European climate and at the time of Josephine’s death at Malmaison in 1814, only one remained alive. The black swans, however, not only survived but thrived, roaming the gardens freely.
Exiled to the island of Saint Helena, Napoleon introduced two new 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.