“The winters were longer when I was a girl” … well, probably not, but winters often seem long. Even during a relatively mild one, the dark, and especially the lack of green, is disheartening. Many of the world’s holiday traditions (Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali) were, at least in part, attempts to throw off the gloom and bring light and life into the home. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum’s exuberant celebration of the holidays evokes the spirit of life in the mansion in days gone by. Christmas trees brought nature’s green inside to remind the Bartow family that their beautiful grounds would not always be covered in snow. Historically, the need for green has motivated people to find ways of bringing the outdoors in during winter months. The women and children of a family were generally more housebound than the men and in particular need of the uplifting effects of interacting with nature in winter.
Indoor gardens run the gamut from extensive, permanent structures to humble potted plants and everything in between. As early as the 16th century, when glass and cast iron construction improved, orangeries much like the one at Bartow-Pell were used to create an indoor environment for plants. An orangerie (and its close cousin the conservatory), is a glass-walled addition to the exterior of a house, used to extend the normal growing season. Sited facing south, the glass creates a warm and sunny environment. Also called a solarium, many of these “glass rooms” also had an early version of radiant heating (heating lines that run underneath the floor). The main difference between an orangerie and a conservatory is the result of different technical construction specifications. An orangerie (sometimes written “orangery”) typically matches the house in style and materials and has less glass than a conservatory. These additions were most popular from the 16th through the 19th century, but many of todays’ plant-loving homeowners are seeking them out still.
Often during the inclemency of our winter and spring months, there are days when either the excessive cold, or the disagreeable state of the weather, prevents in great measure many persons, and especially females, from taking exercise in the open air. To such, the conservatory would be an almost endless source of enjoyment and amusement; and if they are true amateurs, of active exertion as well. (Andrew Jackson, 1841)
The Bartows’ plan for the ca. 1840 stone mansion included a conservatory, which had double-hung glass sash windows and an earthen floor. By 1915, when the International Garden Club (IGC) commissioned Delano & Aldrich to work on the estate’s buildings and grounds, the conservatory had deteriorated considerably and was in need of a complete rebuild, which they executed in the Colonial Revival style. The renovation included a cement floor and replaced the sash windows with a wall of full-length “French” windows with “French” doors in the center. The doors created access to the newly constructed sunken garden via the terrace we see today. The members of the IGC referred to the room as “the Orangerie” and used it as a tea room looking out over their elegant new landscape.
For those who didn’t have either the space or the means to add an orangerie to their home, there have always been less extravagant ways to enjoy plants indoors. Decorative urns, ceramic jardinières, and wicker or metal plant stands were (and still are) popular interior design accessories. During the Victorian era, having plants in your parlor or drawing room was considered a sign of sophistication. Indoor plants brought much needed light to the dark and heavy Victorian décor. The 19th century saw a surge of botanical exploration. Many of the plants we know so well today were “discovered” and brought home by the great explorers of the day, with long lasting effects on European and American living rooms and gardens. During this period now-familiar landscape plants such as rhododendron, azalea, and weeping cherry trees, as well as houseplant staples like ferns, palms (such as the diminutive “Elephant Foot”), orchids, ivy, “Victoria amazonica” (a water lily), and the ubiquitous aspidistra, were introduced to the West.
In the Victorian era, growing and tending to plants became a suitable hobby for young ladies. Fern collecting was particularly popular. A collection might include staghorn, Boston, or hart’s tongue ferns. “Footed” fern varieties were prized for their whimsical “feet” protruding from a jardinière.
Ferns were often kept under a glass dome (“cloche”) or in a Wardian case (today’s ‘terrarium’). The Wardian case was the happy accident of an entomology experiment by Nathanial Ward, who put a chrysalis in a glass jar with some soil. Unaware of the flora that had hitched a ride in the soil, Ward was pleasantly surprised when a fern and some grass began to grow and thrive in the microclimate of the jar. Wardian cases were all the rage and could be quite elaborate miniature landscapes with fashionable, exotic plantings and designs. Some cases were kept heated by means of a gas jet. Comprised of a variety of materials that were suited to any price range, they came in all shapes, sizes, and styles. In keeping with the Victorian taste for elaborate decoration they were often made to look like buildings such as churches and famous houses. Their popularity and availability made them a staple of fashionable drawing rooms.
Wardian cases were also used for more practical purposes. The exotic plant craze of the 19th century was hindered by plant mortality on the long return trips from the tropics and other far off lands where horticultural prizes were to be found. Wardian cases aided greatly in bringing the rare specimens home alive, and in transporting them to exhibitions or institutes conducting horticultural research.
Today, houseplants are ubiquitous; even those with the blackest of thumbs generally have at least a spider plant or a philodendron. The benefits of houseplants are well understood – from improving indoor air quality, to first aid (every kitchen should have an aloe on the window sill), and some of us are even able to keep culinary herbs like rosemary and thyme going through the winter. If you are a gardener, even a tiny African violet can be a consolation during the months of waiting for spring to arrive. BPMM is hosting a Winter Succulent Garden Terrarium workshop on February 20th from 12 to 2 p.m. Why not come and create a planting scheme for a terrarium, or “Wardian case” and take home a “winter garden” for your own living room? Having a little bit of nature indoors is great for lifting one’s spirits on a cold, dark winter day.