GARDENING / Belle epoque blooms: The Malmaison carnation was a cult 100 years ago. Mary Keen follows the scent of a revival

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IN A couple of small glasshouses on the edge of a Gloucestershire market town, one of the cult flowers of the belle epoque perfumes the air. Huge and heavily scented, the Malmaison is the carnation Oscar Wilde might have worn; it continued to be grown in country-house glasshouses up until the Second World War. Floris still makes soaps and bath oils which smell of Malmaisons, but few people nowadays have had a sniff of the real thing. This year, however, the adventurous gardener gets a chance to grow these plants which have been out of circulation for so long.

Jim Marshall, a gardens adviser to the National Trust, is one of a handful of private growers of these carnations in the country; his little greenhouses, along with Crathes Castle near Aberdeen, house the National Collection of Malmaisons. They are far from easy to grow, but through micro-propagation he hopes to be sharing them with a wider group of gardeners soon.

The Malmaison carnation originated in France as a chance seedling from the tree carnations which were popular winter flowers in the mid-19th century. The new flower, which smelt of cloves, looked more like a rose than a carnation, so it was named Souvenir de la Malmaison after the rose grown in Empress Josephine's garden.

In Britain, where the outsize carnation quickly became fashionable, other sorts were discovered. By the end of the century nurserymen had begun to breed new forms of Malmaisons in a range of colours from red to white. Six-inch blooms were not uncommon on plants that could reach 5ft. Unlike other cult flowers such as tulips and pinks, they did not survive the winter without protection. They are a challenge to grow but, once smelt, are hard to resist.

Jim Marshall is now giving the public a chance to see these old favourites; they are on view at the Hampton Court Flower Show today, on the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens stand. The exhibit has been mounted by Mr Marshall, with flowers from his own garden and borrowed from other dedicated growers.

Malmaisons, Jim Marshall admits, need coddling. In his case, that means wrapping their faces in dry Kleenex to stop the petals falling apart, because Malmaisons have a habit of splitting at the calyx. They are also prone to red spider in summer and damping off in winter. Plants need to be constantly renewed from cuttings, but some varieties will only respond to layering - and they must be reduced to four or five shoots per plant, which have to be gently staked, tied and disbudded.

Even after all this care, the life of a Malmaison is short. Mr Marshall suggests that two years is probably what the grower should hope to achieve. Two- year-old plants could be expected to produce about eight blooms. If all this sounds demanding, pity the dedicated Mr Marshall, who has also had to contend with a virus which distorts the leaves and shortens the life of his plants. This last problem may now be solved, however, by micro-propagation.

The aim is to build up enough stock to sell to growers in the autumn. Jim Marshall would like to see the plants recover the acclaim they enjoyed 100 years ago. He also hopes to discover Malmaisons still growing in some unexplored glasshouse.

Those who suspect they are harbouring a forgotten Malmaison, rather than a tree carnation, should check that the leaves are thicker and flatter than those of a modern form. If they are, and the flowers are huge and smell of Floris soap, Jim Marshall would like to be told. In 1909, 18 varieties were listed by a Glasgow nursery; some of them, he feels, may still be around. Growers of the Nineties will have to be content with the five cultivars known to Mr Marshall. I suspect orders should be placed fast.

Jim Marshall, 4 The Damsells, Tetbury, Glos GL8 8JA, tel 0666-502589); pounds 18 buys four carnations. Ring for availability. Malmaisons can be seen at Crathes Castle, 15 miles west of Aberdeen, open daily 9.30am to sunset, and at Peckover, North Brink, Wisbech, Cambs PE13 1JR, garden open Sat-Wed 2-5.30pm. There are a few at the RHS Garden at Wisley.

(Photograph omitted)