Conservatories, A Little History
The idea of shelter to protect fragile and exotic plant species throughout the winter began in the days of great botanical exhibitions, which included the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The ancient civilizations of China, Greece, Egypt, and Japan were keen exponents of a trophy room where rare and exotic species of plants and blooms could be preserved and propagated. The Romans developed this interest by attempting to construct buildings that kept out the cold and let in warmth and light using sheets of mica instead of glass. Sadly, these early conservatories disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire.
Greenhouses, orangeries, and conservatories as they are known today were constructed from the need to house collectible and newly discovered plant species in the great Age of Exploration from the 15th to the 17th century. Europeans were exploring the world by sea in search of trading partners, new species, new goods, and new trade routes during these pioneering centuries. Some of the great explorers set sail to simply learn more about the world. Whatever the reasons, the information gained during the Age of Exploration significantly helped in the advancement of geographic and botanical knowledge.
Special shelters called limonaia were built in Italy and these early structures used wood panels in storerooms or open galleries to protect citrus trees from the cold. Many people wanted to cultivate citrus trees, having tasted the fruits brought by traders of the era. The Dutch were amongst the first to devise more sophisticated structures. The concept of cultivating exotic plants and citrus trees caught on amongst the wealthy culminating in the spectacular architectural splendour of Louis XIV’s orangery at Versailles.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, these magnificent conservatories, which had been long associated with palaces and stately homes, made their way into the public domain of the great cities of Europe and the UK. The Industrial Revolution combined with the Victorian vision of improvement of the population at large, led to the construction of architecturally stunning public conservatories and indoor gardens. There was a growing interest in the study of natural history by men such as Charles Darwin and an ensuing interest in the study of plants – particularly exotic species. The Victorians were hungry for all manner of exhibitions and expositions and this demand for grand public leisure spaces combined with the engineering expertise of the day enabled great glass and steel buildings to satisfy the demand.
Heating the buildings of the day relied upon southern facing glass sides to absorb the heat from the sun with air vents to regulate temperature. In some cases, heat was synthetically produced and this was another reason why conservatories were the domain of the rich. Fortunately, modern conservatories have insulated well-glazed glass and heating systems are energy efficient and affordable to run. While the average family conservatory may not grow full size orange and lemon trees, it is certainly a very conducive environment to growing your own orchids and exotic flowers and plants to act as natural décor for your conservatory.