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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Amiable & Adaptable, the Storied Greenhouse is also Adored

Who loves a garden loves a greenhouse too.” – William Cowper

Somewhere between the outdoors and in, is the greenhouse.

Really, any structure with a roof and walls can qualify if it’s mostly made of transparent material - like glass.

From small backyard sheds to massive industrial complexes and yes, even sprawling palaces, there’s just something about the amiable greenhouse that seeks to invite us in.

Also known as the glasshouse or hothouse, the simple science behind these plant nurseries serve to protect plants from outside weather while trapping heat and humidity and encouraging the growth of fruit, flowers and vegetables of all kinds.

Since Roman times, there was want to harvest year-round, regardless of climate or other environmental constraints. Emperor Tiberius insisted on a daily diet of a cucumber-ish vegetable, requiring the sun’s heat during the day and shelter inside from the night cold.

In the mid-15th century, early Korean greenhouses evolved to include artificial heat - allowing fruit and vegetables to be ripened and cultivated during even the harshest winter months.

Two centuries on, the first greenhouses began appearing in Europe – marking the beginning of the continent’s long and impressive affection for glasshouses - including as architecture and design.

The 1600’s brought initial versions to the Netherlands first, and then England. Early French greenhouses went by orangeries as they housed and protected prized citrus trees from frost.

Often works in progress, it took trial and error to get balanced heating just right and to cut down on the sheer amount of work required to batten down the hatches every night and winter.

The greenhouse goes grandiose

As they improved, increasingly elaborate greenhouses during the 17th through 19th centuries were built and shown-off as symbols of European affluence. One opulent example is the Versailles Orangerie, the greenhouse at the Palace of Versailles in France.

Built during Louis XIV’s reign in the 1680’s, it was designed to impress as much as do its job of sheltering more than 1,000 citrus, olive, palm and other trees during wintertime. Like school classrooms everywhere, summer empties the orangerie as trees head outdoors for the warm break.

Of course, leave it to the Victorians to bring the most impressive and elaborate greenhouses yet.

Advancements in glass-making technology allowed for larger sheets of stronger but cheaper glass. This paved the way for construction on a scale not before known. The Crystal Palace was constructed in Hyde Park, London for the Great Exhibition in 1851. At almost a million square feet, the glass and iron structure housed the 14,000 global exhibitors that attended.

Not to be outdone, the original inspired the New York Crystal Palace just two years later at 1853’s Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. The Palace lasted just five years before it was destroyed by fire.

While the upper-crust and spectacle glasshouses were busy showing off, other greenhouses with their growing denizens, were destined for higher education.

The rise of the science of botany helped expand greenhouses from estates to academia – increasingly taking up residence at universities and setting the foundation for continued research and advancement.

It’s this uncommon intersection between science and beauty and nature that’s the inspiration behind the teaching greenhouse of Greenhouse I.

The working-class houses had come a long way. They became increasingly specialized in their tending to the needs of specific plants and became categorized based on their nighttime temperature requirements: cool and warm greenhouses, and the hothouse.

Once a hobby only for the moneyed, botanists and would-be botanists - newly available exotic plants drove a burgeoning greenhouse culture in England and around the world.

Material innovation in the 1960’s-70’s continued to democratize the greenhouse. With the advent and improvement of plastic technology came extended durability and lifespan. Wider sheets of polyethylene and fiberglass became more available, allowing easier and cheaper construction. Smaller, more affordable versions spread greenhouse construction into garden centers, small farms and backyards.

Don’t let the quaint garden version give you the wrong idea: greenhouse technology is also big-business. The largest versions support massive commercial agriculture and horticulture industries as well as the furtherment of botanical science - and there’s a lot of them.

Today, it’s estimated that there are 9 million acres of greenhouses across the globe. The Netherlands alone supports over 4,000 greenhouse operations, producing over €7 billion annually in fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants.

Whether commercial plant production, for purposes of science or for plant aficionados; over centuries of development, there’s just something about the simple allure of a greenhouse.

My idea of a good novel was one you made enough money out of to buy a greenhouse.” – Terry Pratchett


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