The year: circa 30 A.D. The place: Rome. Royal physicians have warned the ailing emperor Tiberius that he must eat a cucumber every day. So begins construction of a specularium, a house dedicated to growing plants. Constantly maintained fires outside the stone walls heat the air inside. A translucent roof crafted from thin sheets of mica allows sunlight indoors. The greenhouse is born!
Greenhouse technology has come a long way since the time of the ancient Romans, but the concept — an enclosed structure providing a special environment for plants — is essentially the same today. Gardeners use these structures to protect plants from heat or cold, to extend a plant’s growing season or to foster non-native plants.
The English often referred to their greenhouses as “conservatories.” Both the English and the French aristocracy had become fond of newly-discovered tropical fruits, so they commissioned “orangeries” and “pineries,” greenhouses especially developed to cultivate orange trees and pineapple plants. Of course, a special enclosure devoted to the cultivation of exotic plants remained prohibitively expensive, both to build and maintain. The aristocracy of Paris, St. Petersburg and Vienna competed with each other in creating ever more magnificent glass structures.
Concurrent with the European acquisition of all sorts of new exotics came a surge of interest in the study of botany, meaning that many universities began constructing greenhouses. Leiden, Holland, was the site of what many consider to be the first practical botanical greenhouse. The work of French botanist Jules Charles in 1599, this structure was designed primarily to raise tropical plants for use as a source for medicines. Greenhouses continued to become both larger and more complex throughout the 17th century.
Greenhouses in America
Andrew Faneuil, a well-to-do Boston merchant, gets the credit as the builder of the first American greenhouse in 1737. George Washington, wishing to serve his guests pineapple, built a greenhouse especially to grow the fruit at his home in Mt. Vernon. As in England, greenhouses in America became more common and more affordable throughout the 19th century.
The Wye Orangery, built in 1785 on a plantation on Maryland’s eastern shore, is America’s only remaining 18th century greenhouse.
African-American statesman Frederick Douglass spent part of his childhood years in slavery. Recent archeological work within the greenhouse has unearthed a fascinating history never mentioned in Douglass’ writings. Artifacts indicate that not only did slaves maintain the greenhouse and stoke the fires that provided heat for the plants, but that they also lived in quarters within the structure. Archaeologists found objects used in African religious traditions beneath a doorstep. Most intriguingly, evidence suggests that through their decades of toil within the greenhouse, the slaves were also conducting a series of agricultural trials on medicinal and food plants.
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