The glasshouses used to grow plants rather than to house people and art, date back to ancient Egypt where they were used to grow grapes as early as 4,000 B.C. By 300 B.C. glasshouses were heated by manure pits and by 92 B.C. in Italy, Sergius Orata invented a heating system, with heat passing through flues in the floor. One of the first structures for growing plants was built for the Roman emperor Nero. At the time, the specularium, glazed with mica, was made for the cultivation of cucumbers during winter months.
By 380, Italians were using hot water filled trenches to grow roses indoors. In the 1600s Europeans were using southern facing glass, stoves and manure to grow winter crops of citrus fruits. The growing sheds were called orangeries and later were heated with carts filled with burning coal.
One of the earliest greenhouses was built in Holland, by French botanist Jules Charles de Lecluse in 1599 for the cultivation of tropical and medicinal plants. By 1720 the first U.S. all-glasshouses were built in Boston and Chicago.
In European glasshouses, the favorite crops were pineapples, peaches, and grapes. They were built against masonry walls and heat came through flues built into the walls. The first American greenhouse with glass on all sides was erected by Boston merchant, Andrew Faneuil before 1737.
The idea of growing plants in environmentally controlled areas has existed since Roman times. The Roman emperor Tiberius ate a cucumber-like vegetable daily. The Roman gardeners used artificial methods (similar to the greenhouse system) of growing to have it available for his table every day of the year. Cucumbers were planted in wheeled carts which were put in the sun daily, then taken inside to keep them warm at night. The cucumbers were stored under frames or in cucumber houses glazed with either oiled cloth known as specularia or with sheets of selenite (a.k.a. lapis specularis), according to the description by Pliny the Elder.
In the 13th century, greenhouses were built in Italy to house the exotic plants that explorers brought back from the tropics. They were originally called giardini botanici (botanical gardens).
‘Active’ greenhouses, in which it is possible for the temperature to be increased or decreased manually, appeared much later. Sanga yorok written in the year 1450 AD in Korea, contained descriptions of a greenhouse, which was designed to regulate the temperature and humidity requirements of plants and crops. One of the earliest records of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty in 1438 confirms growing mandarin trees in a Korean traditional greenhouse during the winter and installing a heating system of Ondol.
The concept of greenhouses also appeared in Netherlands and then England in the 17th century, along with the plants. Some of these early attempts required enormous amounts of work to close up at night or to winterize. There were serious problems with providing adequate and balanced heat in these early greenhouses. Today, the Netherlands has many of the largest greenhouses in the world, some of them so vast that they are able to produce millions of vegetables every year.
The French botanist Charles Lucien Bonaparte is often credited with building the first practical modern greenhouse in Leiden, Holland during the 1800s to grow medicinal tropical plants. Originally only on the estates of the rich, the growth of the science of botany caused greenhouses to spread to the universities. The French called their first greenhouses orangeries, since they were used to protect orange trees from freezing. As pineapples became popular, pineries, or pineapple pits, were built.
Experimentation with the design of greenhouses continued during the 17th century in Europe, as technology produced better glass and construction techniques improved. The greenhouse at the Palace of Versailles was an example of their size and elaborateness; it was more than 500 feet (150 m) long, 42 feet (13 m) wide, and 45 feet (14 m) high.
The golden era of the greenhouse was in England during the Victorian era, where the largest glasshouses yet conceived were constructed, as the wealthy upper class and aspiring botanists competed to build the most elaborate buildings. A good example of this trend is the pioneering Kew Gardens. Joseph Paxton, who had experimented with glass and iron in the creation of large greenhouses as the head gardener at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, working for the Duke of Devonshire, designed and built The Crystal Palace in London, (although the latter was constructed for both horticultural and non-horticultural exhibition).
Other large greenhouses built in the 19th century, included the New York Crystal Palace, Munich’s Glaspalast and the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken (1874–1895) for King Leopold II of Belgium.
In Japan, the first greenhouse was built in 1880 by Samuel Cocking, a British merchant who exported herbs.
In the 20th century, the geodesic dome was added to the many types of greenhouses. Notable examples are the Eden Project, in Cornwall, The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, and Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.
Greenhouse structures adapted in the 1960s when wider sheets of polyethylene film became widely available. Hoop houses were made by several companies and were also frequently made by the growers themselves. Constructed of aluminum extrusions, special galvanized steel tubing, or even just lengths of steel or PVC water pipe, construction costs were greatly reduced. This resulted in many more greenhouses being constructed on smaller farms and garden centers. Polyethylene film durability increased greatly when more effective UV-inhibitors were developed and added in the 1970s; these extended the usable life of the film from one or two years up to 3 and eventually 4 or more years.
Gutter-connected greenhouses became more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. These greenhouses have two or more bays connected by a common wall, or row of support posts. Heating inputs were reduced as the ratio of floor area to roof area was increased substantially. Gutter-connected greenhouses are now commonly used both in production and in situations where plants are grown and sold to the public as well. Gutter-connected greenhouses are commonly covered with structured polycarbonate materials, or a double layer of polyethylene film with air blown between to provide increased heating efficiency.