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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Georgian/Regency hothouse plants

With many thanks to Adrian Howlett, garden historian & local historian, for the use of his books, and for the extra research he kindly did for me on the old names of plants and the dates of introduction of those I couldn’t track down.

The Hothouse, Greenhouse, Orangery, Vinery – the very names are evocative!  And what more suitable place to consider a setting for a scene in a period romance, with rich scents and warmth year round, the romance of flowers even off season!
But what was grown there?
Some of the structures have a clue in their name – orangeries grew oranges [most of which were probably green, not orange at all, the original name for the fruit was a norange, and this became corrupted.  Modern oranges are treated with sulphur dioxide to make them orange to fulfil the expectations of the name, though some species do have the colour naturally].  Vineries grew vines, which would be planted outside the vinery and the branches trained inside.  Generally these structures would then be given over to storing winter tender plants over the colder months after the grapes had been harvested and the vine pruned back.
Technically a greenhouse was unheated and a hot house was heated, but the terms seem to be used interchangeably so I shall make no distinction.

It must be remembered that the tax on glass was still in place at this period, and that therefore all kinds of greenhouse were the plaything of the wealthy;  only those who could afford not only the glass but the heating required to keep the boiler going – the wages of the gardeners being relatively negligible – might expect to have flowers and fruit and vegetables out of season.  These hothouses were indeed used to grow food for the table such as cucumbers out of season as well as to provide flowers; but in this blog I am going to concentrate on the decorative species. It should also be remembered that these would not have been structures of metal and glass such as we think of today, but structures of brick or stone with large windows along as much of the structure as was feasible.

Note; some of the species that required hot-house protection at the time have happily developed the hardiness to survive English gardens nowadays, it is important to remember that adapting to a harsher climate takes time.

John Claudius Loudon, in his ‘Encyclopaedia of Gardening’ [1835] recommends “Pelargoniums, Camellia, Fuchsia, Jasminum, &c, or evergreens, as the Myrtus, Proteacea &c”. Proteacea are flowering shrubs from the southern hemisphere including Banksia which produce rather unfriendly looking flowers.  Though the encyclopaedia is published outside this period, Loudon was gardening and researching during the Regency and most of what he says may be considered to be relevant.
He also offers a suggested layout of a hothouse:

I started my research with the Uniacke Estate inventory of 1830; and verified that although this is an American estate, the plants could all have been found in England too. It listed the following plants in order of the number of tubs of each:

Geranium there were many tubs of this, and whether they referred to the lemon scented geranium, really a pelargonium, P. crispum or its cultivar ‘Lady Scarborough’ introduced in the early 1800’s or a common red zonal pelargonium, P. zonale called to this day by most people a geranium introduced in 1710, or  P. peltatum, the ivy-leafed pelargonium [1701] is not clear; there may have been a mix.  Also P capitatum [1701], P. fulgidum & P x ardens [1714].  South Africa.  Pelargoniums would be put outside in pots as we do to this day for the summer.  The wild P. zonale is predominantly pink, with some red and some white individuals; but it is the red variety which caught the imagination of the English flower-lovers.

Myrtle  Myrtus genus; this became popular with the design of Italian Renaissance style gardens in the classicist revival, being introduced to England in the C18th  but it required either a walled sheltered garden or wintering indoors. It is a fragrant shrub from the Mediterranean.

Orange orange trees were always popular for conspicuous consumption. They appear not to have grown very large.

Oleander  another fragrant Mediterranean  shrub associated with the classicist revival, like myrtle requiring winter protection.

Passion flower probably the blue Passiflora caerula [1699] from S. America which needs winter protection.  P. incarnara 1568 winter hardy.

Hyderanga [sic] Hydrangea arborescens was introduced 1720 OR 1736 [I have two conflicting sources], the first mophead H. macrophylla late C18th  [possibly 1798], cited from China but probably actually from Japan.

Moss Rose a mutation of Rosa centifolium from 1720 on; the bud is mossy in appearance and scented.

Jessamine the Georgian name for jasmine, Jasminus officianalis, commonly used in the C18th  for scented bowers [mentioned in Wm Chambers ‘Dissertation on Oriental gardening].  I laughed to find this as a hot house plant as my various jasmines grow like weeds.  I must also mention a plant NOT listed, Woodbine [honeysuckle; Lonicera if you want it in Latin] also used for scented bowers.  Again the old name for it.

Variegated Laurel  Aucuba japonica, [1783] from Japan.

Sweet Bay Laurus nobilis; needs no explanation, a herb grown time out of mind.

Slanbdras Thanks, Adrian for a tentative identification that this is a poor transcription of Sambac; aka Arabian Jasmine, and grown in the C18th for its scent – it was used to perfume gloves.  Introduced late C17th.  This a jasmine of startlingly pure white.

Laurestinus Vibernum tinus. Adrian queries why this might be grown in a hothouse as it’s as tough as old boots.  Vibernum flowers from late October through to April with mopheads of white flowers which turn to blue berries.  The dark shiny foliage is also decorative and this would help year round floral displays, whilst being more convenient for the lady of the house to cut. 

Masariane thanks again to Adrian for identifying this with some certainty as Daphne mezereum, which was known as Mezereum still as late as 1931.  It derives from the original Persian name  Mazaryun which sounds pretty similar to the estate transcription.   Flowering late winter with fragrant pink flowers followed by red berries. 

This is the end of that estate list. 

I have also some plants grown by Richard Hall in  the greenhouse he shared with his sister where they grew myrtles, geraniums [pelargoniums], groundsil [groundsel; for his internal complaints] and hyacinths. 
Hyacinths were introduced in the late C16th  but more cultivars came from the Netherlands in the C18th [Prance &Nesbitt] They have been forced for early flowering by being grown in glasses since 1734 in England, and earlier in the Netherlands

Here’s a few more period hothouse flowers:

Amaryllis  A. belladonna 1774 [Musgrave, Gordon & Musgrave] usual flowering period February to April. By a regimen of cooling and skilled watering, Amaryllis can be made to go dormant and flower twice in a year; but the experiments regarding the forcing of this bulb were only occurring from 1816 and some success seen by 1818. [Loudon]

Anemone  Loudon [1835] tells us that the anemone has been under cultivation for as long as the tulip and that many fine single and double varieties are to be found from English and Dutch cultivation.

Azalea 1806.  Spring flowering.  Related to Rhododenron.

Calceolaria 1789 [Musgrave] flowering late spring to autumn.

Camellia  1739  flowering January – March

Carnation aka Grenadine the common pink, or gillyflower, had long been known in England of course; the carnation, Dianthus caryophyllus, was introduced by Gerard in 1597 [Loudon].  Linnaeus classified the genus Dianthus in 1753.  D. carophyllus also refers to the clove-scented pink. In 1629 Parkinson listed 49 sorts which he divided into the larger carnation and the smaller gillyflower.  Loudon speaks of a man called Tuggy who had 360 kinds in 1702 which he considers comparable to the range in his time.   The range of colours from red through to white as well as the sweet scent of the clove scented varieties.  would have made it popular. D barbatus, sweet William, is another dianthus known at the time [and may or may not have been named for Prince William, Duke of Cumberland aka the Butcher Cumberland for his actions after Culloden].

Chaenomeles aka Japanese Quince by 1800 flowers off and on all spring from Feb to May; and incidentally the fruit makes a good country wine and may be used as a source of pectin to help set jam.

Dahlia  - see Georgina

Day Lilies Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus [syn H. flava] and H. fulva from C16th , H. minor 1759. [Prance & Nesbitt]

Fuchsia  F. magellanica 1789.[Goulding]  This is one hardy plant, it grows by Magellan’s straits, and I suspect could naturalise happily right away, I’ve had F. magellanica on flower in my garden in January, under snow.  I’ve made the leap of imagination in ‘William Price and the Thrush’ that it was already starting to naturalise in Ireland giving rise to the familiar hedgerows by 1814… which might be a bit of a fantasy but is not totally beyond the bounds of possibility!

Georgina  - D. coccinea [1795] D. rosea [1795][syn for D. Pinnata cav]  and D. Pinnata  late C18th  flower July or August to October, generally ceasing to flower if outside at the first frost; hothouse will extend the flowering period. D coccinea varies from orange to red with all tones between. D pinnata is more of a purple colour.  In 1804 Lady Holland sent seed back to Britain which was the basis for all garden Dahlias.[National Dahlia Society]. I hit on a brief reference to a double dahlia developed in Belgium in the early 1800’s but it would not be likely to be recognisable as what we call a double today being two rows of petals. In 1805 red, purple, lilac and pale yellow flowers were achieved. [Wikipedia] .

 I’ve had to work largely from Georgian botanical drawings as I couldn’t find much in the way of species photos.

Lily  Madonna lily from C13th or earlier, most European varieties from C16th ; N. American species added from L. superbum, 1738, then east Asian phase with L. maculatum [1745] and L. tigrinum [1804] L. longiflorum 1819 [Prance & Nesbitt]

Lobelia Generally speaking a number of red and blue varieties were available, ititially from N. America;L. Cardinalis [1629] L. siphilitica [1665], then Mexican varieties were found, L. fulgens, 1809, L. Splendens 1814, and stretching the period, L. tupa from Chile [1824].  Flowering is June to October, greenhouse cultivation means earlier flowering extending the season with staggered sowing of seed as well as being excellent bedding plants having been brought on under cover.

Nerine aka Guernsey Lily brought from S. Africa in C17th  and grown first in Guernsey. [Exbury collection of Nerines and Lachenalias HERE].  Many are still frost tender.  Flowering in October, the perfect flower for autumn/early winter.

Petunia 1632 [Musgrave] petunias flower quite happily from spring all the way into
autumn. They may also be planted out in their season.

Tulip Tulipmania was long gone, but tulips remained in many varieties [Loudon tells us that enumerated 140 in 1629]. Tulips, like many plants bedded out in their proper season, were brought on in the greenhouse.

Wisteria  Wisteria was introduced in 1724; W. sinensis in 1816, the fashionable ‘must have’ plant no doubt for the later Regency.

Here’s another good link to plants and their date of introduction


Blaise-Cooke with Key ‘Pelargoniums’ 1998

Culver-Campbell, Maggie, ‘Origin of Plants’

Goulding, Edwin – various fuchsia books

Lawson-Hall & Rothera  ‘Hydrangeas – a gardener’s guide’ 2004

Loudon, John Claudius ‘Encyclopaedia of Gardening’ 1835

Musgrave,Tony, The Head Gardeners – ‘forgotten heroes of horticulture’ 2007

Musgrave, Gardener & Musgrave ‘The Plant Hunters’  1998

Prance, Ghilean & Nesbitt, Mark ‘The Cultural History of Plants’

Rendell, Mike ‘Journal of a Georgian Gentleman’


  1. Fascinating to see the change from hot house plants to the common or garden plants we know today. Atttractive illustrations too

  2. This is just so fascinating!!! and funny...I was just reading about a Jamaican plantation that actually converted to orchid production when sugar and tobacco went awry after the final end of slavery...but I have a few questions...were all of these flowers produced "for the table," or as a hobby, or was there any mind to turn flower production into a revenue stream? did English aristocrats and gentry who grew these flowers ever try to cultivate tulips and compete with the Dutch market---which I appreciate reached it's peak in the seventeenth century but never completely disappeared, yes?? And did the English also import Spanish "red" oranges after the Napoleonic wars??

    what a great entry!!! and terrific illustrations!!!


  3. Clio, I would think that the largest houses had gardeners who produced table flowers [and vegetables] but that there were plenty of gentlemen of leisure who grew for their own delight. And ladies! Lady Holland was responsible for introducing and breeding new Dahlias [probably with aid from her gardener I adds cynically]. I believe there were the beginnings of commercial hothouses competing with the Dutch market in a range of plants. I'll have to see if I can find out about the red oranges. I suspect not for a while.

  4. Not to worry...but I wonder if any of the members of the aristocracy turned to commercial flower production as the 'long nineteenth century' persisted, particularly if there were other sources of revenue in decline...

    Out of season fruits and vegetables for the table is just, I guess, a sort of offering sugar from Cyprus instead of honey desserts and cinnamon in the Middle Ages, eh??


  5. The offering of food from the lord of the manor's estates for patronage to favoured tenants too was a long held custom, very often in the middle ages it would be game birds, conies or a brace of pigeons. A basket of out-of-season or exotic fruit is the sort of patronage one might readily expect from someone like Lady Catherine de Bourgh... and with her, it would come with patronising patronage. Having such things on the table, like sugar and rare spices in the middle ages, was a case of conspicuous consumption.

  6. Thank you so much for this excellent information. I was seeking information on suitable flowers/plants for a Georgian period dinner gathering. I noted the dates for the Azalea and Camellia, both of which I grow in the front garden, readily available now for the vase. I was drawn to your entire blog, of course, as an Austenian and admirer of all things from Early Georgian to the beginning of Victoria's Reign.

    Thank you so much for your study and information.

    Nuala Galbari
    Southern Virginia, U. S.

  7. Many thanks, Nuala, I am glad it was useful to you. I am hoping to do more posts on gardens and plants at a later date. My Camellias are still in bud at the moment, in the Camellia tree [I've never seen another to make it to a tree though I'm told there's one at Kew] in the corner of my garden. It's an early kind though, and the petals drop within a very short time, if you bring them inside, alas...

  8. Not sur eif you will see this but I will ask anyway. :) How did one water plants in a greenhouse during the Regency? Was there a canal system or did servants have to haul buckets of water? Thank you for any insight into this.

  9. It depended a lot on the ingenuity and forward planning of the owner of the green house. Many greenhouses had water piped for fountains, to keep the air moist for their tropical plants, so there was water on tap. But I strongly suspect that in many cases, the servants hauled buckets of water. JC Loudon went into great detail about providing water, in his Encyclopaedia of gardening, which was published in 1828 but much of it had appeared as articles in various magazines. Another solution would be a header tank, as was often used for the provision of household water, in which rainwater was collected in a tank and fed to a tap with gravity. Water from guttering was also collected in hogsheads in country houses, I've read passing mentions in diaries of the time, so I wouldn't be surprised to find the same expedient used. Less hauling of water.
    I'm now looking at Loudon's charming pictures of watering engines. We have a hose attached to a pump, hose attached to a pump on a wheelbarrow, the 'self-acting greenhouse engine' [I kid you not] which uses air compressed by a piston to drive out water in a spray. The final picture shows a horse-drawn hogshead on a cart which doubles as a garden roller, a hose from the hogshead going to a wide spraying end, the purpose for lawns rather than in the greenhouse but I thought I'd mention it anyway. The first two engines were designed for outside but I could see them being used in a large greenhouse. I still suspect most people expected the servants to carry buckets to fill watering cans though!