Yesterday was one of those nasty New England days that fairly scream, ‘stay indoors’. And so we did. But there are many kinds of ‘indoors’. The one we chose to huddle in featured a dazzling fuschia bougainvillea canopy, hundreds of orchids, a mass of camellias bursting to open, and several thousand assorted citrus, herb, tropical and other specialty plants. And we had the place all to ourselves for most of our visit.
Welcome to the Lyman Estate greenhouse complex. It’s located in Waltham, Massachusetts, and is part of a Historic New England property. If you’re a Historic New England member, entry is free. If not, the price of admission is four dollars, or roughly one percent of the cost of an airline ticket to Florida.
The Lyman Estate is a glimpse of an all-but-vanished New England: a summer country retreat for Brahmin Bostonians. Located ten miles from Beacon Hill, the original house was built in 1793, enlarged in 1882 and remodeled in 1917. The property, now 37 acres, remained in the Lyman family until being donated to the predecessor organization to Historic New England in the 1950s.
The estate’s greenhouses are considered one of the oldest surviving such complexes in the country. It consists of four interconnected structures; an 1804 grape house, an 1820 camellia house, an 1840 orchid house, and a 1930 cutting flower structure now used as a sales pavilion.
In 19th Century New England, greenhouses were both practical and status symbols. They provided fresh vegetables in winter for well-to-do Boston homes. They also were evidence of interest in serious horticulture. The Lyman family is associated with the founding of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (which, in 1969, reciprocated by funding the restoration of the greenhouses).
The oldest section of the greenhouse was originally built to grow the aforementioned vegetables, plus exotic foods like figs, lemons, limes and pineapples. In the 1870s, it was converted into a grape house. The green Muscat of Alexandria grapes growing there today are descendants of the original cuttings. I can’t find a reliable source for the age of the enormous bougainvillea growing in the second section of the grape house, but its six-inch-thick trunk suggests an origin in the first half of the 20th Century.
The second oldest section of the complex is the 1820 camellia house. Originally planted with peach trees, it was converted to growing camellias in 1908. Several of the trees in the greenhouse today are more than a century old.
The third section of the greenhouse, the orchid house, filled in the space between the grape house and the camellia house. The variety of orchids, and the care taken to ensure that each species has the correct lighting and space, makes a trip to the greenhouse a ‘worth a journey’ kind of event for anyone serious about orchids.
The final segment of the greenhouse was added in 1930, when the Lyman family added a structure to allow for winter propagation of cut flowers that would grace the estate’s living spaces. Part of its plan was an indoor goldfish pond built as a heat reservoir. Today, it’s a sales space where you can browse hundreds of plants without any buying pressure. The goldfish pond survives, planted in papyrus.
February 6 marks the ‘official’ start of the camellia blooming season with attendant publicity, and the have-the-place-to-yourself atmosphere will disappear, at least on weekends. There’s no need to wait for the official announcement: we saw dozens of camellias in bloom. As the season progresses, the estate holds five heirloom and specialty plant sales that bring droves of visitors. There’s also no need to wait for those. We found – and purchased – three exquisite and irresistible new plants for our home.
The greenhouses are a hidden gem. They’re an antidote to a bleak winter’s day and are open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Lyman House is open to the public only once each month, on the third Saturday. The rest of the time, it is rented for special events, notably weddings.