It is citrus season. Outside my door the oranges are ripening on an overloaded tree providing a surplus of the sweet fruit. If you don’t have a tree right outside your door, you can still find an abundance of the succulent fruit right down the street at your supermarket.
However, oranges were once a luxury available only to those with great wealth. Since the time of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, (42BC-32AD) this juicy fruit has inspired all manner of efforts to provide the perfect growing conditions for the frost tender trees. The “orangery”, or special heated glass houses, were built for the protection of these precious plants, keeping them warm in winter.
In the 19th century the orangery was transformed into a new point of civic pride, the conservatory. This was the golden age of conservatories. The great interest in botany resulted from discovering new foods and a growing fascination with exotic plants such as ferns, orchids and succulents. A conservatory was seen as a civic benefit, an attraction equal to a library or ball field to provide everyone, regardless of their social standing, an opportunity to view fascinating flora from around the world. For those enduring a winter with snow and ice it provided green plants, beautiful color, and warmth.
Conservatories were an architectural challenge to build. The variety of plants required soaring open space, heating and cooling capabilities, and separate climate zones. Tropical collections demanded a constant high level of moisture inside the closed building which resulted in rust and mildew problems. The architects designed the glass houses to allow light to flow in from all sides and as a result a conservatory revealed for the first time architectural structure and engineering for all to see. Now, in a time where houses have dual pane windows and insulation it is hard to imagine how the heating and cooling would dissipate in an all glass house but that was another of the challenges the early conservatories faced.
The original Crystal Palace Conservatory was built in London for the Great Exposition of 1851. It was built around towering, mature elm trees and had room for two horse-drawn carriages to pass side by side down the main hall. When it opened, masses of people walked through enjoying the lovely gardens and newly discovered beauty of nature. It was also fragile, built of wood and glass and heated by coal fired boilers 24 hours a day. Not surprisingly, it caught fired and burned. It remains only in early photos of the period, but it inspired the building of many more conservatories.
In San Fransisco the House of Flowers was inspired by the Crystal Palace. It was a conservatory kit ordered from England by a wealthy business man who never got around to having it put together. Eventually donated to the city and constructed in Golden Gate Park, it opened in 1878. The structure is a decorative mix of curved domes and colored glass panels creating a rainbow of light as the sun streams through to the inside.
In Tacoma, WA, the W.W. Seymour Conservatory is a Victorian architectural confection of white, glass and steel. Inside, a seasonal floral display offers a flower show as beautiful but more lasting than a Rose Parade float. Changing from a patriotic summer display of red and white lilies and blue delphiniums to a fall display of rust red and gold mums to holiday poinsettias, the seasonal displays remain popular. In the damp northwest the conservatory has a separate climate zone showcasing cactus flowers and dry climate specimens.
Maintaining these Victorian crystal palaces has required great effort over the years. Easily damaged by heavy snows and strong windstorms repairs were frequently required. Reengineering, refurbishment, fundraising and a serious commitment to their historical importance have been ongoing to keep these treasures open. Happily, new conservatories have opened with improved design.
In Oklahoma City, OK, renowned architect I.M. Pei designed a cylindrical conservatory. The Crystal Bridge floats over a small pond in the Myriad Park and the building commands your attention. Opened in 1988 as a tropical plant collection it features a 35’ waterfall.
An elevated walkway allows visitors to walk among the trees and enjoy a year round population of butterflies and lizards.
In Albuquerque, the Rio Grande Botanical Garden opened a double pyramid conservatory in 1996. Contemporary engineering transformed the headaches of early conservatories using computer modeling of local weather patterns, specific site selection, and using building materials that resulting no heat and cooling requirements. Inside the plant collection features cactus from around the world which are appropriate for growing in the New Mexico landscape. A true innovation in the design of a conservatory.
In case you are wondering what the difference is between a conservatory and a greenhouse, Anthony Walmsley, a Fellow of American Society of Landscape Architects described it best; “Conservatory is a garden inside a building and a building in a garden.” Where as a greenhouse is used to grow plants, provide propagation space and growing conditions to protect rare and delicate plants. It can be located anywhere.
Public gardens featuring a conservatory provide an architectural feature worthy of observation and admiration. Wandering inside you are guaranteed a surprise. Tropical collections of perfect orchids and ferns frequently appear, their requirement for high humidity and heat can immediately fog your glasses and camera lens. The opposite environment is equally interesting with desert plants and cactus flowers on view. You may find soaring palm trees or a collection of Bonsai. Colorful birds, brilliantly marked frogs and lizards may move about the plants. In a more temperate climate the ever popular seasonal floral displays provide a horticultural masterpiece.
All of this inspired by a desire to grow oranges where they could not naturally grow. Further fueled by a fascination with plant life from around the world, conservatories still stand as crystal palaces holding great treasures of our natural world. Treat yourself to the surprise and reach with renewed gratitude for an orange.
If this piques your interest in Crystal Palaces check out Anne S. Cunningham’s book Crystal Palaces, Garden Conservatories of the United States, C. 2000,
or Public Garden Management: A Global Perspective: Vol. II, By BIJAN DEHGAN C 2014
Published in Roots & Shoots, Maricopa Master Gardener Newsletter