For the Love of Cucumbers

The Journeys Festival International, led by ArtReach, celebrates the creative talent of exceptional refugee and asylum seeker artists and shares the refugee experience through great art. Throughout October, Manchester Museum is hosting This Garden of Ours, a collaborative art project researching global horticulture, in our Greenhouse. 

In today’s post Chiara from the Visitor Team takes a look at the origins and long history of greenhouses, and tells us a little bit more about this Journeys Festival project. 

For more information on this and other events and to find out more about our collection please visit the Museum website and the Curator’s blog.

For the Love of Cucumbers

From iconic features in botanic gardens to home gardening, the history of glasshouses takes its roots from far and wide – we can even trace their history back to Roman times. Under the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (14 – 37 AD) royal physicians prescribed at least one vegetable a day for the emperor. The cucumber was a favourite of Tiberius, who apparently “was never without it” (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History).

Emperor_Tiberius_Denarius_-_Tribute_PennyThe tribute penny mentioned in the Bible is commonly believed to be a Roman denarius such as this (27-30 AD) depicting the Emperor Tiberius. (source)

According to the description by Pliny the Elder, because cucumbers grew only in the heat of summer, the make them available all year round meant devising a way to grow the plant in environmentally controlled area. Tiberius’ skilled gardeners were able to develop an artificial growing system: carts set on wheels, covering the vegetables with with either oiled cloth, known as “specularia,” or sheets of selenite, a transparent rock that let the sun in, known as lapis specularis.

This enabled the plants to grow with the perfect amount of heat and light throughout the year, marking the birth of the first greenhouses!


The Materia Medica

The first true greenhouse, named at the time a ‘botanical garden’, was built in Italy in the 13th century, to protect exotic tropical plants brought home by explorers for medical research. Originally, these gardens were linked to university faculties of medicine, for botany was at the time considered an integral part of medicine. Early greenhouse gardeners learned how to use the natural movements of the sun and the southern light exposure to ensure the maximum amount of sunlight and warmth reached their plants.

The idea of a protected space where plants and trees could grow regardless of the time of year or climate outside was so attractive that it quickly spread all over Europe, first to the Netherlands and then to England and France. Similar technology also developed across the globe. An example of this can be seen in 15th century Korea; during the Joseon Dynasty, this type of technology was reported by royal physician Jeon Soon in his cook book, Sanga Yorok (1459). The text describes structures that were capable of growing vegetables and fruits within an artificially heated environment, by using the ondol, a traditional Korean underfloor heating system that maintained temperature and humidity; cob walls for insulation; and semi-transparent oiled hanji windows to permit light penetration for plant growth while provide protection from the outside.


Left: Basic structure of the greenhouse. Right: The oil-paper employed on the south facade. (source)


The Invention of Glass Roofs

Although early greenhouses were already very efficient there were still many problems with providing adequate and balanced heat. In the 15th century Italian glass makers from Murano, near Venice, devised a transparent glass, which was soon used to create glass roofs. This invention changed the history of greenhouses, which were soon after named ‘glasshouses’ or ‘conservatories.’

The early greenhouses were private playgrounds of the rich and were used to grow their favourite fruits and flowers. At Versailles, a huge 492 ft long ‘orangery‘ was built between 1684 and 1686. It was designed to house 1,000 orange trees and other subtropical fruits grown in large crates, when they were moved indoors over the winter. The heated structures were made from stone walls and a wooden frame, with a solid roof, however, the heating system was so unpredictable that some plants froze, while others baked. Such structures became popular during the reign of William III, Prince of Orange; and the Netherlands today has still many of the largest greenhouses in the world.

Like their older Korean counterparts, the early English orangeries utilised underfloor heating via charcoal, although later designs made use of hypocausts – a Roman invention dating back from 1st century BC.

3The remains of a Hypocaust system in West Sussex. (source)

The dawn of the English glasshouse

These structures were often for the ladies of the house, so that they might properly enjoy their roses and orchids. These ‘must-have’ toys of the aristocracy and social elite were afforded only by those who enjoyed extreme wealth – if you could afford the hefty window tax of 1696 and the glass tax of 1746 to build a large glasshouse, this signified your prestige, wealth and power.

The desire for these contemporary wonders was so keen that the greenhouse at Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire had electricity installed even before Buckingham Palace!

image.jpegWentworth Castle Greenhouse, Stainborough Park Heritage Trust. (source)

Public conservatories soon became popular places, with rich industrialists building many famous botanical tropical gardens during this era. The Crystal Palace, built in 1851 in Hyde Park in London to house the Great Exhibition, is probably one of the most famous. This enormous cast-iron and glass structure was made of 900,000 square feet of glass and had full-size mature elm trees growing inside it. The Crystal Palace was an exercise in 19th century great design. But the trajectory of the history of glasshouses was all about to change.

image.jpegThe Transept at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, the glass and iron building designed by Joseph Paxton, at Hyde Park, London. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty (source)


From the privileged few to the masses

The appetite for botanical status symbols continued throughout the 19th century, but it wasn’t to last. During the Industrial Revolution with the cost of manufacturing glass dropping dramatically and no taxes for the buyer, glasshouses became affordable to a much greater percentage of the population and manufacturers realised that there was a new market outside of the super rich – the more populous middle classes. By the early 20th century plain, self-assembled and small glasshouses were made for everyone with enough garden space and money to afford them.

A leap into the future

During the last century, cheaper and more efficient greenhouses reflected the technological advances of the time, making them available to ordinary gardeners. The use of aluminium and the invention of plastic hoops and large sheets of polyethylene revolutionised the design to the point that 90 percent of modern greenhouses are built using poly sheets rather than glass. These popular structures are otherwise known as hoophouses.

image.jpegThe Eden Project in Cornwall, by Jürgen Matern. (Source)

Today’s greenhouses are becoming highly automated and sustainably efficient (using fiberglass, acrylic and polycarbonate), controlling temperature, humidity, ventilation, and watering.

It is perhaps only the passion for gardening itself which has not changed through centuries. Just like in Roman times, it’s all for the love of Mother Nature.


This Garden of Ours

Manchester Museum is a Grade II* listed building and proudly part of the University of Manchester. We host a large number of botanical specimens and our the third floor features a beautiful Victorian greenhouse filled with a great variety of plants.

As part of the Journeys Festival International Manchester, the Manchester Museum Greenhouse is hosting a collaborative art project researching global horticulture. This Garden of Ours explores stories and links between the migration of plants and humans across the planet. Using a range of techniques, artists have added their own stories to the histories of the plants. The installation is made from handmade pottery, self-portrait photography and other interpretations, which create a veritable Garden of Eden. With a celebratory opening event, talks, an opportunity to meet the artists, and family activities, there are lots of ways you can find out more.

image.jpegThis garden of ours, Jessica El Mal.

We celebrated the launch This Garden of Ours on Thursday 10 October, with food, music and discussion, and the exhibition continues until 1st November, so come along and see it for yourself.

Chiara Ludolini

This Garden of Ours is part of Journeys Festival International Manchester. Go to to see the full Festival programme.



Cunningham, A. S. 2000. Crystal Palaces: Garden Conservatories of the United States. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. The Covered Garden. Dufour.A History of Greenhouses. Link

Pliny the Elder. 77 C.E. The Natural History. Book XIX.

The Nature and Cultivation of Flax, and an Account of Various Garden Plants. Edition and translation by J. Bostock and H. T. Riley.

Vleeschouwer, O. de. 2001. Greenhouses and Conservatories. Flammarion.

Woods, M. 1988. Glass Houses: History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories. Aurum Press.