a visit to one of the oldest greenhouses in the US

January 24, 2014

I have a new favorite winter retreat, and it’s not 7 miles from my New England home. “The Vale” better known as the Lyman Estate, and in particular, its 200-year-old greenhouses.

Located in Waltham, MA, The Vale was built in 1793 as the country retreat of Boston shipping magnate Theodore Lyman. An avid horticulturalist, Lyman hired renown 18th century gardener William Pell to design the grounds of his new 30-acre estate in the English picturesque style, including open fields, ponds, copses of grand trees, a winding “peach wall”, and formal gardens. Also part of this design scheme were the greenhouses, begun in 1798, which remain some of the oldest working greenhouses in the United States.

Unlike the more idealized conservatories of the later Victoria era, those at the Lyman Estate are very much working greenhouses, where all mechanisms necessary to maintain the plants are plainly visible. This gives Lyman a rustic, earthy character that, to me, is much more interesting and textured than the romantic conservatories.

The balanced architecture of the Lyman house is a classic example of the Federal Style.

The front of the house commands a sweeping prospect of the fields and ponds.

Around the back of the house, Pell created a more intimate setting by enclosing the grounds in an undulating “peach wall.” Against this southern exposure the family was able to grow peaches well past the typical New England growing season.

A masterpiece of landscape architecture, Pell’s design considered the relationship between the house and grounds from each angle, so that from every vantage point they appear seamlessly integrated.

a wizened wisteria along the peach wall

From 1804 to 1930, the Lyman family continued to add to the complex of lean-to style greenhouses along the peach wall.

Like the Secret Garden, a door in the peach wall leads to the wild woods beyond.

The Lyman Greenhouses were designed to provide the family with exotic, tropical fruits and flowers all year long. Today it is still maintained as a working greenhouse by Historic New England.

Little putti and a sunny oncidium cebolleta greet visitors to the orchid house.

Added in 1820, the Camellia House has some specimens that are more than 100 years old.

Next month the Lyman house will host its famous festival, “Camellias in Bloom.”

I couldn’t get enough of the shrouded Camellia house. (If I ever shoot a movie…)

white camellia

I must say, these black petunias have made a convert out of me.

Every where you look, the wonky nature of the Lyman Greenhouses inspires the imagination. Here I can picture a Victorian game of hide-n-seek for the bravest of children.

Dating back to the original Lyman era, the vines in the grape house came from England’s Hampton Court!

another new favorite plant: the Canary Island bellflower

You can visit the Lyman Greenhouses yourself. See more pictures on Gardenista.

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