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The First Greenhouses: From Rome, To America

Did you know the first recorded greenhouses in history were from Rome around 30 AD? Legend has it physicians of Emperor Tiberius told him that it was necessary, for his health, to eat one cucumber a day. Thus, Roman scientists and engineers began brainstorming about how to grow plants year round.

Two agricultural writers, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella and Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder),  who lived during the reign of Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE),  both wrote about the first specularia or Roman Greenhouses.

According to Pliny the Elder, Roman Greenhouses “consisted of 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 or mica.” 

According to a horticulture paper written by Purdue students, however, it is argued that these Roman cucumbers were not in fact what we consider cucumbers at all. Instead they were melons that lacked sweetness. The article also covers the variety of Medderterianian plants the Romans grew in their greenhouses, and some may surprise you.

In 1577, more than a half a century later, English gardener Thomas Hill wrote about greenhouses in his book “The Gardener’s Labyrinth”:

“The young plants may be defended from cold and boisterous windes, yea, frosts, the cold aire, and hot Sunne, if Glasses made for the onely purpose, be set over them, which on such wise bestowed on the beds, yeelded in a manner to Tiberius Caesar, Cucumbers all the year, in which he took great delight...” (Thomas Hill, “The Gardener’s Labyrinth”, 1577)

According to Dave’s Garden.com, Greenhouses in England became popular during the mid 1800's, when glass became manufactured in larger quanties. In cities, greenhouses became especially more vast because the English viewed them as a way to reconnect with nature.

One of the most marveled greenhouses in England is The Palm House at Kew Gardens, which was constructed between 1844 and 1848, under Queen Victoria. Legend has it engineers used designs for ships to construct the large, glass greenhouse.

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According to Dave’s Garden.com, Greenhouses made it over to America during the 1700s. Andrew Faneuil, a successful Boston merchant, built the first American greenhouse in 1737. George Washington, wishing to serve his guests pineapple, built a greenhouse at his home in Mt. Vernon. Like in England, greenhouses in America became more common, and affordable, throughout the 19th century.

Interested in learning more? Read more about the history of greenhouses here