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In the Greenhouse

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

Did you know that the first known primitive greenhouse was built almost 2,000 years ago? Here’s a little history that just might grow on you.


Ever since humans started cultivating crops—about 12,000 years ago—people have been trying to develop better ways to grow them. At some point, farmers in various places around the world figured out that growing plants indoors, or in some kind of protected space, had potential advantages. In regions that had cold winters, they could grow plants indoors for a much longer period than they could outdoors, and they could grow plants that normally grew in different climates and on different terrain.

We don’t know exactly when indoor gardening started, but we do know that advanced horticulture—the art and science of growing vegetables and ornamental flowers—was being practiced in many parts of the world thousands of years ago, and that it often involved the use of protected gardens. This included small vegetable and flower gardens outside of homes, protected from weather and wildlife by walls, and elaborate multilevel indoor (and outdoor) palace gardens—filled with hundreds of species of plants, often exotic varieties imported from conquered lands—such as the magnificent gardens built in Babylon and Egypt more than 4,000 years ago.


The next big step in greenhouse history came when early horticulturists added heat to the equation, and built growing structures to take advantage of the sun. It probably first happened several thousand years ago, but the earliest direct evidence of something that could be identified as a greenhouse comes from the ancient Romans, about 2,000 years ago.

According to ancient Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (ca. 23–79 AD), Emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 31 to 37 AD, had a craving for a particular vegetable: cucumbers. He insisted that his royal gardeners provide them for him every day—even in the winter. To meet this demand, Pliny wrote, the “kitchen-gardeners had cucumber 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.” The “transparent stone” was selenite, a crystalline variety of gypsum that could be split into thin, translucent sheets. The selenite was placed over the portable cucumber beds, thereby acting as primitive greenhouses. (There was no such thing as glass windows at the time—the Romans would introduce them a short time later, around 100 AD.)

Other writers of the era mention the use of semitransparent stone windows to protect plants, suggesting that the use of these primitive greenhouses was fairly popular in ancient Rome. But little was written about them after that, and the concept of greenhouses disappeared almost entirely from the historic record for the next thousand years.


In the 14th and 15th centuries, citrus fruits—such as citrons, lemons, and oranges, all of which are native to the Far East—became increasingly popular in Europe. Taking advantage of that demand, citrus growers in the city-states of northern Italy figured out a way to grow the fruit year-round: they grew citrus trees in large terra-cotta pots, and in the winter they moved them into large warehouselike
structures—known as stanzone per vasi, or “huge room for pots”—that were heated with wood stoves or open fires. The use of such hothouses spread throughout northern Europe, and became known as orangeries. In the late 16th century, when developments in glass production made the manufacture of transparent glass windows possible, orangeries with glass windows appeared.


In the 1660s, orangeries became known for the first time as “greenhouses.” This was well into the age of exploration, and thousands of previously unknown species of plants of all kinds were being introduced to Europe from around the world. This gave rise to “botanical gardens,” founded by universities and other centers of learning, for the study and display of those new and exotic plants. And because many of those plants could not survive the European climate, greenhouses were built for the sole purpose of keeping and studying those plants. As glass and iron production technology improved, greenhouses got larger and more complex, becoming known as “conservatories,” from the sense that they existed for the conservation of plants. Many of those old conservatories still exist today, and are recognized as architectural wonders. These include the Palm House, built in 1840 at the Belfast Botanic Gardens in Ireland and one of the earliest examples of curved glass and cast-iron greenhouses; and the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, an immense complex of highly stylized greenhouses built in Brussels, Belgium, in the late 19th century. Described as a “city of glass,” it covers more than six acres.


Greenhouse technology continued to develop throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, and today greenhouses come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and styles, and can be found in an equally wide variety of materials.

• High-tech greenhouses, such as the huge, thermoplastic biodome greenhouses built by the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, use state-of-the-art computer technology to regulate the climate inside the domes, allowing operators to create different climates.

• In Montreal, the Montreal Biodome—which is more than 650 feet long, 320 feet wide, and 180 feet tall—grows banana trees, rubber trees, coffee, and giant bamboo. And it has its own waterfall.

• Simple and inexpensive greenhouses made with plastic PVC pipe frames, and clear polyethylene film for windows, can now be found in homes, nurseries, and on farms all around the world. And backyard greenhouse kits are available at garden centers or online for just a few hundred dollars.


(Image credit: Flickr user Eli Duke)

• The McMurdo Greenhouse on the United States’ McMurdo Station in Antarctica can produce 250 pounds of vegetables a month. (Average outside temperature: 26°F …in the summer. It falls to an average of -15°F in winter.)

• In the late 1820s, London physician and amateur botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was studying a moth chrysalis in a sealed jar when he noticed a fern growing from the soil in the bottom of the jar. Intrigued, he made some small, sealed glass enclosures—basically miniature, sealed greenhouses—and found that he could grow ferns and other small tropical plants inside them. “Wardian cases,” as they were known, became popular with explorers in the mid-19th century, as it allowed for the safe transport of fragile exotic plants that otherwise could not survive long sea journeys, and they later became popular items in Victorian homes. The tiny greenhouses are better known as terrariums today. (Note: Today “terrarium” is used to refer to small, unsealed glass display enclosures, such as those used to house small animals.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's newest volume, Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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I'm not sure anything before the advent of large glass windows qualifies as a "greenhouse". Building a wall on 4 sides will certainly help protect plants from animals, insects and extreme weather, but it's still open air and doesn't offer the range of climatic conditions and control of a greenhouse. The same goes for wheeling planters into a building at night.
I know thin, bleached animal skins were used before glass, as well as the crystal mentioned, but I can't imagine either could practically allow enough sunlight through, to be a real, fully-enclosed growing area.
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