A Brief History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories

From Roman Greenhouse to Extravagant Georgian Orangeries

There have been greenhouse-like structures since Roman times. In the words of Pliny the Elder, these greenhouses were “beds mounted on wheels which they moved out into the sun and then on wintry days withdrew under the cover of frames, glazed with transparent stone or mica.” Tiberius Caesar was even said to be particularly fond of the cucumbers grown in these glass structures!

Pliny the Elder. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons

Then the Roman’s knowledge was brought to Britain. Many centuries later, in 1577, English gardener Thomas Hill wrote: “Young plants may be defended from cold and boisterous windes, yea, frosts, the cold aire, and hot Sunne, if Glasses made for the onely purpose, be set over them, which on such wise bestowed on the beds, yeelded in a manner to Tiberius Caesar, Cucumbers all the year, in which he took great delight.”

However, although this knowledge was known, it was seldom practised, and it was the orangery, popularised several decades later, that spurred the modern trend.

Very impressive buildings, orangeries were, as their name suggests, used to grow oranges and other citrus fruits. An orangery was once a symbol of great wealth and only the very rich could afford to have one built.

These exotic fruits were introduced to Europe during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. Originally coming from China and Southeast Asia, these fruits were coveted for their flavour and appearance along with their health benefits.

Orange trees were initially planted outside and then were only protected with temporary covers during the cold winter months. As it became clear this was not enough for the Northern European climate, purpose-built buildings were constructed to house the trees over the winter instead.

These ‘Orangeries’ had huge, long, south-facing windows to provide lots of natural light. The north side was mainly walled with brick and insulated further with straw to protect the plants from the cold. The plants were grown in portable tubs and in the summer would be moved out into the garden.

Orangeries became a frequent feature at stately homes from the mid 16th century. During the summer months, when the plants were moved outside, they became an extra space to entertain guests. They also became home to more exotic plants.

Orangeries also became known as ‘greenhouses’ or ‘conservatories’ because of the green plants that they conserved inside them. Nowadays, we tend to differentiate between all these different structures, but in the 1700s and 1800s, this was not the case. A ‘greenhouse’ could be a marvellous structure such as the one seen at Croome Court. The words were interchangeable.

The Temple Greenhouse at Croome Court was designed by Robert Adam and dates to around 1760.
Photo by Philip Halling , CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the more famous orangeries, The Orangery at Kew Gardens in London, never succeeded as an ‘orangery’ because it did not have enough natural light. It instead started to house other plants too big for the other buildings in Kew.

The Orangery at Kew Gardens dates to 1761. Designed by William Chambers under the instruction of Princess Augusta, it proved a failure as an actual orangery.
Photo by Daniel Case, Wikimedia Commons

Orangeries did not have any glazing on their roofs until the early 1900s. The arrival of pineapples from South America and grapes from the Mediterranean led to the invention of pitched glazed roofs to maximise the light and heat that these plants needed to thrive in these structures.

Heating was also introduced through hot air flues, steam, and piped hot water – the earliest forms of central heating – in order to provide pineapples and grapes with the high temperatures and moisture they needed.

The rise of the modern conservatory

During Victorian times, conservatories became even more popular in Britain and began working their way down the social classes as they became less expensive thanks to improved glass production, cheaper glass, and lighter metal frames.

Conservatories’ popularity really spiralled through until after the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park to house this exhibition. With 900,000 square feet of glass, it had the largest area of glass ever used in a building.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Image from public domain

This incredible building inspired many middle-class families to build conservatories on the back of their homes, and these began to look similar to what we know today as conservatories.

It had already become fashionable to have a house’s main reception rooms on the ground floor rather than the first floor, and many homeowners, wanting a closer connection to nature in an increasingly industrialised society, already had had much larger windows and French doors fitted.

The conservatory became their next step or ‘must have’, interior designers of the day suggesting it be built next to the breakfast room, drawing room, or library.

Greenhouses, Orangeries, and Conservatories Today

Greenhouses are now the domain of fruit, veg, and flowers.
Photo by Yan Krukov / Pexels

Nowadays, ‘greenhouses’ in Britain are exclusively known for housing plants. Modern orangeries and conservatories are now more often used as light-filled multi-purpose living spaces rather than for actually growing plants or fruit, although there can be some crossover.

Bringing the outside in with the clever design. Photo by Liz West

Clever design can bring your outside space in, connecting you and your family more to nature. How you furnish the room can be a key to giving it that light and airy look.

Conservatory furniture

There are all kinds of furniture that are used in conservatories nowadays, ranging from classic wooden garden furniture to chic patio breakfast sets to modern rattan cube sets.

The most popular garden and conservatory furniture is now rattan which has replaced “1980s-style” wicker garden furniture as the on-trend furniture of choice.

Some modern rattan furniture is now even cleverly designed to incorporate a fire pit.

Image Credit: Billyoh Capri Rattan Garden Furniture Corner Sofa set w/Firepit

Summary

Glasshouses and greenhouses have come a long way since Pliny the Elder’s times, but they remain a staple of many modern homes to quickly, easily, and relatively inexpensively extend the living space and bring the outside in.

Being connected to nature is proven to be beneficial to physical and mental health – to helping with depression, anxiety, and stress levels in particular. Even if it’s just when viewing nature from the window. Setting up a bird table nearby and watching the birds come and go from your conservatory is an easy thing to do (and educational if you have children) and it also helps promote local wildlife.

It is not just plants that need light. Getting enough natural daylight is a known factor in setting the body’s clock and helping to induce good sleep quality at night. Sleep is, of course, vital to regulate and maintain many of the body’s processes and help keep disease and even obesity at bay.

This need for light is even more important as we get older and are surrounded by so much artificial blue light in the modern world such as on our computers, television screens, and phones. It is best if we can actually get out of it if we can for at least half-hour a day, but if we can’t, conservatories can be the next best thing.