Hydrangeas, Queen Hortense, the Hortensia Diamond

Hortense de Beauharnais Girodet

Hortense de Beauharnais Girodet

My thanks go to Felio, a reader of this blog, who is a florist by trade and gave me the idea of flower-themed posts. The first that came to mind were hydrangeas, because my paternal grandmother, gardener extraordinaire, used to grow them in the mountains of Auvergne.

Hydrangea Redoute

Hydrangea by Redoute

Needless to say, they are not hardy enough to resist that harsh climate, but my grandmother was not the sort of person to let such details stand in the way of her gardening wishes. Every fall she would dig up her hydrangeas, wrap the roots in burlap sacks and keep them in the cellar for the entire winter. Then by the end of the following spring, she would plant them again and soon they would be reborn in all the splendor of their huge pink blossoms.

Hydrangeas are called hortensias in French, and I often read that they were so named by Empress Joséphine in honor of her daugher Hortense de Beauharnais, Queen of the Netherlands. Joséphine was indeed a passionate botanist and cultivated hydrangeas in her gardens of Malmaison.

But the Hortense connection, romantic as it sounds, is in doubt. Hydrangeas were discovered in China by the French physician and naturalist Philibert Commerson. He introduced them to the King’s Garden at l’Ile Maurice (Mauritius) in 1768 under the name Hortensia opuliodes, and did not reach continental France until years later. Hortense de Beauharnais was born in 1783…

Hortensia diamond Louvre

Hortensia diamond Louvre

Hortensia simply means in Latin “garden plant,” an apt if prosaic name. Yet it is to Joséphine’s cultivation of hydrangeas at Malmaison in the very early 19th century that the plant owes its initial popularity, which has spread worldwide and has never abated.

It is impossible to leave the topic of hortensias without mentioning the Hortensia Diamond. It was purchased by Louis XIV and, unlike the Hope Diamond, is still part of the French Crown Jewels. It is often displayed in the Galerie d’Apollon, the most gorgeous hall in the Louvre.

Was the Hortensia Diamond, over a century after entering the royal collections, named after the plant, or Queen Hortense? Frankly I don’t know, but I will note that its exquisite color is reminiscent of the pink shade of hydrangea blossoms.

And speaking of shades, hydrangeas also come in blue. The blossoms of the same plant can turn from pink to blue, or the reverse, if you modify the soil’s acidity.

Hydrangea

Hydrangea

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21 Comments to “Hydrangeas, Queen Hortense, the Hortensia Diamond”

  1. Jaime says:

    Catherine;
    Thanks so much for this post on hydrangeas. They are my absolute favorite and among my earliest memories of my grandmother’s house – they were beautiful lining her front porch. Here in the south, most hydrangeas are blue, so to see the photo of the pink mixed with the blue is a treat! So interesting about the Hortense connection as well. Keep the flower – theme going!

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Jaime! I wasn’t sure the flower thing would be a hit with my readers, and now it turns out that your grandmother too was a hydrangea afficionada. And this is why I picked this picture: the mix of pink and blue blossoms.

  3. Lauren says:

    Thank you Catherine for this gorgeous post. I must say I have a soft spot for hydrangeas, diamonds and Queen Hortense! :)

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Wow, Lauren, a triple hit! I agree with you…

  5. Judith says:

    What a lovely post! Thank you for the dose of beauty & glam for the day! Just wonderful!
    Judith~

  6. Excellent to get all this background on the hortencia/hydrangeas! I’m late to appreciate it’s beauty but it is such fun to paint the layered flowerettes. I didn’t know acidity could change it’s color? And the diamond is to die for!!!
    merci Catherine

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Judith – Yes, don’t we need our daily dose of beauty?

    Carol – I would love to see your hydrangea watercolors. Agreed, the diamond is gorgeous. Empress Eugenie later wore it as part of a hair ornament. Picture it in her beautiful auburn locks…

  8. ahh beautiful post. Makes me wish it was not so cold. Say, If you like gardening, there is a new book out on Marie Antoinette’s gardens. I can’t remember the name of it.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Carlyn! I know the book you mean: Marie-Antoinette and the Last Garden of Versailles. I bought it and will post a review before the end of the month. It’s beautiful.

  10. Intereseting..have you had a chance to see this new Brit book on Versailles’ architectural history Catherine? There’s an exerpt on Amazon, yet only one mention of Fouquet in the index :(

    Versailles: A Biography of a Palace
    by Tony Spawforth

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Nope, Carol. No idea whether it goes beyond the standard coffee-table book fare. I have too many books on my to-buy list:, in particular:

    Derrière la façade : Vivre au château de Versailles au XVIIIe siècle

    and

    La Petite Cour : Services et serviteurs à la Cour de Versailles au XVIIIe siècle

    both by William Ritchey Newton.

  12. Felio Vasa says:

    Thanks Catherine!!! Very sweet of you. Also thank you for sharing some of your family’s history with us – it offers insight to who you are too. I definitely see a comparative connection to the Hortensia Diamond & hydrangeas.
    Also in the book (Versailles: A Biography of a Palace by Tony Spawforth) that Carol mentioned there is this line that he wrote which reminded me of what you said about your grandmother.
    “Le Notre’s (Louis XIVs gardener & designer) achievement is difficult to appreciate because we can no longer see the terrain as it was when he set to work.”

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Felio, it seems like this book is going on my TBR list…

  14. Penny says:

    Now that I have bought fake purple flowers, the wrong ones, I have to go shopping again for the hydrangeas. right now i have fake roses and lilies.

  15. Hydrangea is a relatively simple flower with dozens of compact blooms in a naturally rounded cluster on each stem. Bloom sizes for complete…

  16. Carmven says:

    Catherine, this was such a delightful read! I’ve loved hydrangeas forever, I have a very remarkable memory of them as a child, visiting my grandmother in the south of Brazil (funny to read so many associations here between hydrangeas and grandmother memories, isn’t it?!), those huge [mostly] blue blossoms in clusters…I didn’t know about the Josephine connection! As a Tori Amos fan (she has a song called “Josephine”, gorgeous), the symbols of the Empress & the flower are very strogn to my personal mythology, and the facts you provided seem to eb so intertwined with that. I will definitely check your other blog entries, the way you write is delicious. By the way, I have just uploaded a couple pictures taken from the hydrangeas from my parent’s house Garden, they’re gorgeous this time of the year here in Brazil, do check them if you will:) Take care – C

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for the beautiful pictures, Carmven! China, Mauritius, France, Brazil… hydrangeas are truly international, aren’t they?

  18. Michele says:

    I know this is an old post, but I am checking out your blog for the first time and had to comment — because hydrangeas are among my favorite flowers! I am an “amateur” gardener (not an avid one since working full-time doesn’t allow me the time, and since I am still making mistakes in my gardens and learning!!), and I have planted hydrangeas in each of the last three places I have lived. They are so beautiful! They are somewhat of a challenge in the California climate where I live, although here the problem is not our winters (as in your grandmother’s case) but rather our very hot, very sunny summers. Hydrangeas absolutely have to be sheltered from the sun in the afternoon, or they will die — very quickly. I only have one small area of my flower bed that meets that criteria, but I have three hydrangeas there! The plants are only a year old (I just moved here last year) but they are doing well. I can’t wait until a year or two from now when they are big, beautiful shrubs!!

    P.S. I am “Michy” over at HFO

  19. same day flowers delivery florist says:

    I enjoy your site, particularly the images, do you take them your self? In Scotland i am blessed having a vast range of flowers, the most stunning of which are in all probability the summer plants. Can I use a few of the images in my own weblog? I’d back link any photos here of course. Hailey Dean

  20. Thank you! Feel free to use the images and content, according to the Creative Commons license outlined below on the blog footer.

  21. HortenciaL says:

    I found your lovely article while looking for some flowers themselves, the roots I have do not want to grow where I live now, and as you can see my name is also Hortencia so it caught my eye. Thank you for the wonderful history on the diamonds and the flowers, this made my night!