Greenhouses in the City: Tower Hill’s Lemons, Boston’s Sour Grapes

November 11, 2010 |

If you’ve been celebrating Killer Frost Day, the happy day when Boston’s herbaceous plants die off and leave allergy sufferers alone for six months, I have awful news for you:  Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA is opening yet another gorgeous year-round greenhouse garden. You’d think having the only orangerie in the state would be enough for the Worcester County Horticultural Society, which owns and operates Tower Hill, but no, they couldn’t stop with a 4,000 square foot 18th-century-style greenhouse filled with towering palm trees and fragrant orange blossoms. No, the Worcester folks had to go on and build an entirely new 3,500 square foot Limonaia, a “lemon house” and winter home for still more citrus trees and camellias. You can go see it for free during Tower Hill’s Winter Open House this Sunday, November 14. The catch is that if you’re leaving from Boston, it will take you an hour to drive there.

In many cities, readers would simply respond “How silly! Why would I drive an hour to get to a greenhouse when I can just visit one right at the Horticulture Center (Philadelphia)/ the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (New York)/ the U.S. Botanic Garden (Washington, D.C.)/ the Chicago Botanic Garden/ the Cleveland Botanic Garden/ the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (Detroit)…” Well, you get the picture. Boston is one of the few northern cities that doesn’t have a major public conservatory in easy driving distance of the city center, while Worcester residents can get to Tower Hill in half an hour. That isn’t to say that we don’t have any— the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses in Wellesley are worth a visit, but the individual greenhouses are smaller than the Tower Hill Orangerie, and don’t give you the same sense of soaring trees and space. The Lyman Estate greenhouses, the UMass Boston greenhouses and the Stone Science Building greenhouse at Boston University are smaller still.

We’ve had our chances. There was a conservatory in the Boston Public Garden from ca.1840 until it burned down in 1847; it was never restored. Harvard never built a public conservatory at the Arnold Arboretum, which would seem like an obvious place for one. More recently, a Garden Under Glass was proposed for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. That plan collapsed in 2006 for many unfortunate reasons.

And so we’re left with a cold, damp city from November through April each year, with air than smells like snow instead of Persian limes and camellias. Well, I bet those Tower Hill limes aren’t worth visiting at all!  They’re small! And sour!  And… very far away. Alas.

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