When the orangery first appeared in the sixteenth century, its purpose was to provide a warm, but light-filled environment in which merchants could grow fruit and exotic vegetables during the harsh winters of northern Europe. It was the seventeenth century, however, before the orangery truly came into its own, when merchants in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands began importing large numbers of exotic plants, such as banana plants, pomegranates and orange trees - hence the name - for their beauty and scent.
These early orangeries were simple wooden constructs - not unlike a modern day lean-to shed - which could be removed in summer, when the weather was warmer and the warmth and protection offered by the orangery was not necessary. As time went on, however, orangeries increasingly came to be viewed as a symbol of wealth and opulence. After all, the fruits grown within them were expensive fare and so their cultivation was generally only feasible by those who could afford a sizeable outlay. And, of course, the moment something becomes a fashion symbol is the moment it begins to become ever more extravagant. Soon, vast orangeries were being constructed in the grounds of stately homes across Europe.
Building an effective orangery was not always an easy task, however. Growing plants inside is a difficult task at the best of times and in the days before reliable central heating or double glazing, many owners found it difficult to balance sufficient levels of heat and light in their orangery. An orangery is the oldest surviving structure at London's magnificent Kensington Palace. However, even the great architect Sir William Chambers was not infallible and the light levels below the building's solid roof made the cultivation of plants near impossible.
Today, the orangery is used as the palace's restaurant. The solid roof of the Kensington Palace orangery was presumably an effort to keep the heat in: many early orangeries suffered from poor insulation and in some cases open fires had to be lit at night to keep the plants warm. In later years, under floor heating provided a more reliable and less dangerous heat source. Opening windows allowed for the regulation of heat; obviously, oranges and the like required plenty of heat to grow, but all that glass could lead to the orangery becoming too hot for more delicate plants in the height of summer.
Nowadays, orangeries are used almost exclusively as sunrooms. They offer a warmth and security which, even in these days of double glazing, some find lacking in conservatories. Their thick walls and open windows offer light and views, while feeling like an integrated part of the house, rather than something that has simply been stuck on the end.