Thursday, April 26, 2012

The must-have garden accessories for the rich and richer? A glasshouse and pineapples!

by M.M. Bennetts

Oranges and lemons first made their way to the English plate and palate sometime during the reign of James I.   They were the preserve of the rich.  Obviously.  Unsurprisingly, within a very short space of time, these citrus fruits--which we take quite for granted--were the status symbol. 

In order to grow the fruits then, small conservatories were built to protect the potted trees over the cold English winter months.  And they weren't called conservatories.  They were known as orangeries or orange houses.

They had solid roofs because the plants are dormant in the winter months anyway, and featured glass windows (or French doors as we'd call them) along one side--usually the south side--so that the sunshine through the windows from February onwards would help restart the growth until the trees could be taken out into the garden once danger of frost had passed.

Queen Henrietta Maria's Orangery (right)
Queen Henrietta Maria had such a structure built at Wimbledon Manor House in the 1630s. 

By the 1650s, despite the deteriorating political situation which might have taken their attention off such frivolities, the well-heeled were for the most part installing heating into their orange houses, usually in the form of free-standing charcoal-burning stoves.  Which occasionally proved unreliable, occasionally poisoning the plants with charcoal fumes.

So the famed garden writer John Evelyn suggested a new kind of stove--this was fixed outside the glasshouse and the heat was conducted into the conservatory through pipes.  It sounds obvious to us, but to them, this was innovation!  Not only that, but Evelyn was the first to call these orangeries 'conservatories'.

Within fifty years, even as the range of plants and fruits to be grown in them had expanded, so too the technology had advanced.  In 1710, the Duke of Chandos' new conservatory was heated by flues, with the central glass section flanked by two walls into which were built coal fireplaces.

Which meant that through the winter months, the tables of the rich and nobles featured not only the citrus fruits, but a wide range of vegetables.  And, as well as stocking their conservatories with other plants such as jasmines and pomegranates, they were producing the ultimate symbol of status--largely because they did require a conservatory and were so difficult to grow--the pineapple.

Which incidentally weren't just eaten.  Generally, for at least a fortnight or so before eating, the pineapple would be on display on the dining table as part of a centrepiece.

But, by this time, the conservatory had outgrown its simple original function and was being viewed more as an architectural accessory rather than a horticultural one.  They were garden features now and were often being built as a focal point in a garden, rather like the Tudor banqueting houses had once been.  Hence, they now often contained a degree of furnishing and like at Dyrham Park near Bath were used during the summers as an extra room, when all the plants were outside.

Lady Hertford wrote in 1739 of the Earl of Bathhurst's greenhouse at Riskins in Buckinghamshire as "a very agreeable room; either to drink tea, play at cards, or sit in with a book, in a summer's evening..." for it was filled with a "collection of orange, myrtle, geranium, and oleander trees".

As the range of available seeds grew, so too did the building of specialist greenhouses.  By the early years of the 19th century, it was not unknown for larger households to have a specialist 'melon house' which was also used for growing cucumbers, strawberries and salad greens year-round in raised hot beds.

The technology for heating the glass structures continued to advance, though it remained somewhat experimental.  And by the end of the 18th century (due to the wars with France), glass was heavily taxed so on the whole glasshouses remained prohibitively expensive.

Yet the true test of a skilled horticulturist remained his ability to grow pineapples. (It was also a measure of one's wealth that one could afford the wages of a head gardener who could grow pineapples.)  So in addition to the melon houses, and the conservatories which were now attached to the house and used as a summer room, special 'pineries' were built.

In 1777, "two hothouses full stocked with pine apples and plants" were built at Knole for the sum of £175. 

By 1805, garden designer and painter Humphry Repton was outlining his plans (in paint) for vast greenhouses for Woburn Abbey which he called 'The Forcing Garden' and that promised fresh exotic fruit and vegetables throughout the winter.  It was also Repton who suggested that the conservatory should be connected to or built off the library (which was by the early 19th century the most used public space of a house) as a natural transition between the house and the garden outside.  And it was this which gave rise to the Victorian tradition of building conservatories for the next several generations--as garden rooms attached to libraries.

Still, the prize for the greatest pineapples--and thus the greatest conservatory building and the most lavish spending--probably goes to the Marquess of Hertford in 1822.  For it was his gardener, Thomas Baldwin, who sent several pineapples to an anniversary dinner of the Royal Horticultural Society--the largest of which weighed 8lbs 14oz.

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British history and the Napoleonic wars, as well as the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at


  1. A lovely article, M.M.,igniting passions for orangeries. I didn't know pineapples were hard to grow. Peter said all I had to do was hack off the upper part and put it in dirt and it would grow; and it did. Perhaps he has an "in" with a pineapple fairy.


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