This Is Why Greenhouses Are Called Greenhouses.


English is a quirky language with odd names for objects that often seem to make no sense. Some people may wonder why greenhouses are called greenhouses. They are not green and have never been green, so where does the name come from?

The name greenhouse refers to a ‘house’ that accommodated ‘greenery’ or plants. It was first used in the eighteen hundreds but only came into common everyday use in the 1960s. The name became more entrenched when the concept of the greenhouse effect was described and came into public awareness.

The name greenhouse refers to a structure built to accommodate plants. Perhaps it should have been called a plant house as a better descriptive word. Languages evolve over time, and words and names become fashionable or more commonly used in certain eras. Two hundred years ago, most people would not have been familiar with the term greenhouse. Greenhouses actually had many different names that were used before the term greenhouse was commonly accepted.

The First Greenhouses

Many people believe that the ancient Egyptians were the first people to build greenhouses, but there is little documentation. However, there is well-documented evidence of the beginnings of a greenhouse concept in ancient Roman times. The Roman emperor, Tiberius, suffered from an unknown illness.

It was recommended that eating a cucumber every day would cure his ailment. This was achievable during the summer, but the poor Roman gardeners were left scratching their heads about how to grow cucumbers in winter.

They came up with the novel plan of growing the plants in wheelbarrows which they took outside during daylight hours and brought in at night. Unfortunately, sometimes this was not sufficient heat, and the plants died. So the intrepid gardeners began using two different materials to cover the cucumber plants.

  • One was oiled cloth, known as specularia, and the other was thin transparent sheets of the rock, selenite.
  • Eventually, they made their lives easier and built cucumber houses using specularia or selenite as a roof.

The Koreans built structures to grow plants that they heated using a concept called ondol. This was a method of underfloor heating, and they grew mandarin oranges together with other plants in their greenhouses. This practice developed from 1438 to 1450 and was described in detail by European explorers.  

In the seventeenth century, English and Dutch gardeners also began experimenting with the concept of greenhouses.

Here’s an interesting video about the history of commercial greenhouses in the US to get an idea of how they’ve evolved more recently.

Greenhouses Were Not Always Called Greenhouses.

There were a variety of names for structures that we call greenhouses today. These varied across countries and were influenced by the type of plants being grown in them and the materials used for their construction.

Glasshouses

As gardeners began to realize the importance of having as much light access for the plants as possible, they began to look at different materials. Glass was the obvious choice due to its superior transparency.  

  • Unfortunately, glass was costly to produce, and the governments in various countries charged a glass or window tax on buildings.
  • This tax was exorbitantly expensive, and as a result, glass houses became a symbol of wealth and prestige.
  • After the mid-nineteenth century, glass manufacturing techniques improved.

Glass began to reduce in price, and the glass tax was abolished. This allowed middle-class people to install glasshouses in their back gardens. Due to the prestige factor, these greenhouses were still known chiefly as glasshouses.

Conservatories

Greenhouses were sometimes known as conservatories, and some people used the terms interchangeably. However, some people distinguished between greenhouses and conservatories.

Conservatories were often attached to homes, and some even existed in the middle of the house. They were usually constructed from brick and mortar with large glass windows or even roofs.

Check out our article on Using A Conservatory As A Greenhouse to learn more.

Some gardeners differentiated between the two terms based on how the plants were planted. For example, a conservatory had plants permanently planted into the soil, while a greenhouse had plants in pots.

The greenhouse was considered a place to grow plants temporarily until they could be planted into the garden or conservatory. Sometimes greenhouses were used to overwinter sensitive plants.

Here’s a fun video showing off Martha Stewarts conservatory greenhouse:

Orangeries, Pineries, Pineapple Pits

In France, the first greenhouses were known as orangeries as they were used to protect orange trees during the winter. Pineapples were grown in greenhouses known as pineries or pineapple pits.

One of the biggest orangeries was built at the Palace of Versailles between 1684 and 1686. The orangery was 492 feet long, 43 feet wide, and contained more than a thousand orange trees. The gardeners also used the palace orangery to preserve other exotic fruit trees and plants during the winter.

Hothouses

Sometimes greenhouses were known as hothouses. This referred to the practice of heating the structure to increase the temperature in the greenhouse.

  • The first greenhouses or conservatories were often heated by wood stoves.
  • Other methods of heating began to be used, and the term hothouse came into common usage.
  • It is still often used in referring to flowers grown in a greenhouse.
  • They are known as “hothouse blooms.”

The Greenhouse Effect

In 1827 Jean-Baptiste Fourier, a French scientist, noted a similarity between the conditions in a greenhouse and the effect of the earth’s irradiation into the atmosphere. Thus, he coined the term ‘greenhouse effect.” With the explosion of knowledge and the advent of the internet, people became very aware of the greenhouse effect.

This resulted in people becoming very familiar with the term ‘greenhouse.’ Structures for growing plants are now most commonly referred to as greenhouses.

Greenhouses Vs. Cold Frames

Modern gardeners sometimes differentiate between greenhouses and cold frames. The most significant difference is that greenhouses have a heat source and cold frames do not. Cold frames are often shorter and consist of a structure covered by polyester or polyethylene material which offers mechanical protection from the cold and snow.

Cold frames cannot be used in extremely icy climates as they do not provide enough warmth, and plants will die from frost. Instead, they tend to be used in more temperate climates where minimal protection is needed for plants.

  • Greenhouses are usually taller and often more permanent structures than cold frames.
  • They have a heat source to increase the overall temperature in the greenhouse.

The heat source may be electrical space heaters, electrical soil heaters, heat sinks filled with compost or concrete, or water barrels that increase thermal mass. Layers of insulation will assist in keeping the greenhouse warm to help the plants thrive.

Greenhouses Or Recreation Areas.

In modern times, some people are beginning to develop their greenhouses into extensions of their homes or areas for recreation. It is not uncommon to find hot tubs, playground equipment, garden furniture, and even pizza ovens or barbecue pits in greenhouses.

People have become more aware of the need to spend time communing with nature. This is especially important in countries where winters are long, and it is challenging to spend time outdoors because of the extreme cold.

Many people suffer from seasonal affect disorder (S.A.D), and psychologists recommend that patients spend time outdoors or in close proximity to nature.

Solar panels and artificial lighting may also be used in these greenhouses. For some individuals, the peace and tranquillity of a greenhouse have become an absolutely essential part of their routine.

Hobbyist gardeners may find themselves too busy with work during the day, but electric light allows them to spend evenings out in their greenhouses. 

Conclusion

Greenhouses get their name from the fact that they are structures that house plants or greenery. Greenhouses have had various names over the years depending on the country, the purpose, and the materials used in construction. Some names include orangeries, conservatories, glasshouses, and hothouses.

Whatever your chosen name, greenhouses can provide gardeners with a whole new spectrum to their hobby and enhance their enjoyment tremendously.     

Robert Sampson

I'm Robert Sampson and I live in Colorado where I spend a lot of time in the backyard with my family either grilling, playing games and sports, or working on a project to make our backyard a better place to be.

Recent Posts