The Garden Spotter

Garden Visit: Lyman Greenhouses, the Nation’s Oldest


In 18th century America, Boston merchant Theodore Lyman was a wealthy purveyor of goods from China and India. So it follows that Lyman’s country estate, built in Waltham in 1793, eventually became known for its collection of exotic plants and trees such as pineapples, grapes, camellias and orchids. Today, rare camellias are still propagated on the property, now down to 37 acres from the Lyman family’s peak of four hundred in 1839. Today, the brick and glass greenhouses on the property remain beautifully intact.

Most gardens have a particular emphasis or special season — the Lyman greenhouses are no exception. Each year, during February and March, the camellia trees, some more than 100 years old, bloom in a parade of white and pink and dark red, and in double and single forms. The faintest floral scent warms the air on a sunny but chilly February day. It’s a must-go.

According to the Historic New England which now runs the Lyman estate, Lyman hired gardener William Bell, an Englishman, to design and build a garden in the English picturesque style in the late 1700’s. It evolved into a classic four square kitchen garden, large trees and a greenhouse complex of a grape house (1804), camellia house (1820), orchid house (1840), and a sales house (1930). Standard for the period, the greenhouses were designed as pit style lean-to greenhouses, built into the south facing slope not far from the main house, a federal style home called “The Vale.” The greenhouses’ back brick wall extends into a 600-foot peach wall against which peach and pear trees were grown. In the early 1800’s and hence, the greenhouses’ glassed covered pits were heated with a firebox and flue and cast iron pipes that snaked through the entire complex. With a primitive mechanical crank system, the windows open easily to release heat and moisture.

Go to the Lyman greenhouses on a late winter day, just when the landscape is truly bland and lacking verdure. It will feel like a breath of spring.  The walk is quick, quiet and so relaxing. Each week, the greenhouses are open every day but Sunday, 9:a.m. until 4 p.m. The adjacent Lyman estate is open once a month, on the first Saturday. The Lyman estate also holds regular plant sales and lectures.

If You Go:

The Lyman Estate and Greenhouses are located at 195 Lyman Street, Waltham, Massachusetts.

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