I’ve always loved greenhouses and excursions to the Kew Botanical Garden greenhouses were a highlight of my family visits to London when I was growing up. There’s something wonderfully romantic about them – from their elegant structures to their exotic inhabitants, these unique, luxuriantly green indoor worlds transport you to another time, another place. They are the site of both extraordinary scientific endeavor and of the sheer beauty and abundance of plants and blossoms from distant lands and foreign climates. While one often thinks of the grand greenhouses of royal residences or universities, even the most humble of backyard conservatories has a graceful presence and integrity of both function and form.
The concept of growing plants in a protected environment has been around since the Romans and the story goes that in order to supply the ailing Emperor Tiberius with the daily cucumber prescribed to keep him alive, a specularium was constructed so they could be grown all year round. From the Italian giardini botanici of the 13th century to the Korean mandarin hothouses on the 15th century, from Charles Lucien Bonaparte’s famed Leiden greenhouse, to the orangeries of Versaille and Sans Souci, from the spectacular Crystal Palace in London to the extraordinary Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, the building of greenhouses, orangeries and conservatories flourished alongside the scientific and cultural fascination with botany and exotica and advances in the production of glass and other building materials.
Gardens and the collection of exotic species from distant lands also functioned as a signifier of social and economic worth, with flowers following trends in much the same way that fashion did.
“a constant desire to keep ahead of the fashion...was one of the chief stimuli to horticultural innovation. It underlay the preoccupation with rarity, novelty and hybridization. It encouraged the gentry to spend large sums of money on improving new varieties from overseas, and forced them to to install stoves and greenhouses in which tropical plants could be housed...” (Thomas Hill, the Gardeners Labyrinth, 1594)
But for all that glass and apparent transparency, the greenhouse is often completely opaque – glass panes fogged by humidity on the inside and frost on the outside, and dense foliage creating shadow and intimacy and camouflage. Moreover, the greenhouse is neither strictly part of the domestic space of the house nor the strictly functional work space of the grounds. Rather they occupy a unique location both geographically, socially and imaginatively. Brimming with exotic plants from exotic lands and sometimes claustrophobically warm, the greenhouse becomes the perfect location for transgressive behaviour and have long been the favoured site of poets and film makers for secret assignations, stolen kisses and the like. As a kid, of course, those trips to the Kew greenhouses were never about swooning under ferns! Rather, it was all about dashing around those perfect secret gardens with their endless hiding spots, opportunities for ambushes, and discovering of marvelous insect-eating plants.
Today, my wanders amidst the greenery of Sydney’s Botanic Garden greenhouses are less childish dash and more leisurely stroll. I love the deep calm that those luscious and beautiful spaces provide. The city disappears behind dripping wet walls of glass, sounds become muted, and just when I think I must know every plant and exotic flower possible, I’m surprised and newly enchanted by something I’ve never seen before - just as I was as a child.
Images from top: , Kew Conservatory via Broadsheet, via http://artofgardeningbuffalo.blogspot.com.au; small greenhouse via Coffee and Kinfolk; the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken in Belgium, Orangery at Sanssouci via The Art of Gardening Buffalo, the Calyx at Sydney Botanic Gardens