Built in 1882, the Linnean House (also “Linnæan House” in some historical references) is the oldest continuously operated public greenhouse west of the Mississippi River. It is the only remaining greenhouse at the Garden that was built during Henry Shaw’s day. It was designed by noted architect George I. Barnett, as were its two “sister” greenhouses in Tower Grove Park, the palm house and the plant house.
The Linnean House was originally designed to be an orangery, a house to overwinter citrus trees, palms and tree ferns. These large potted plants provided bold accents in the outdoor gardens throughout the summer, and were brought in each winter.
The house underwent a major renovation shortly after World War I, its purpose shifting from a warm overwintering house to a cool display greenhouse. Three hundred loads of soil were brought in to create the planting beds on either side of the path. The fountain in the center of the house was created from native limestone to resemble a natural spring along the Meramec River. The half-slate, half-glass roof was replaced with an all-glass roof. Plantings included many conifers, heaths, azaleas, rhododendrons and a camellia or two.
After an especially heavy hailstorm in 1927 damaged the roof, the lower third section of glass was removed, and was replaced by asphalt tiling. A major renovation in the early 1980s replaced these tiles with slate and restored the roof to look similar to its original design of 1882.
The Linnean House underwent extensive renovations and repairs during the winter of 2010-2011. The $1.5 million renovation included a new all-glass glazed panel roof; repaired doors, windows and brickwork; re-graded display areas; and an in-ground heating system.
The renovated Linnean House provides important new space for further development of sub-tropical plant collections from around the world, while combining both features of its past. The northern half of the greenhouse showcases dozens of camellia trees, including Camellia japonica ‘Elegans’ and two specimens of Camellia japonica ‘Nobilissima’ originally planted in the 1930s, along with the velvety red Camellia japonica ‘Professor Charles S. Sargent’ and pink Camellia japonica ‘Claudia Lee,’ both of which date to the 1940s. The Garden’s collection also includes rare and endangered camellias, including Camellia petelotii var. petelotii (the Yellow Camellia).
Camellias have been cultivated for at least two thousand years for their enormous economic value. They are native to Southeast Asia, primarily southern China and Japan. Tea comes from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. The young leaves are crushed, partially fermented and then dried. Chinese green tea comes from the same plant, but the leaves are not fermented.
The camellia blossoms are very showy from late December through early April, with the peak of bloom arriving from mid to late February. Contrary to popular belief, most camellias have no scent at all. The exceptions are the fall blooming sasanqua types, but even these cannot compete with the heady aroma of the fragrant olive trees (Osmanthus fragrans). These large trees provide the Linnean House with its signature scent from fall through spring. Sweetly scented pink jasmine vines (Jasminum polyanthemum) bloom in March and April.
The narrower southern half of the conservatory has been restored to its original use as an orangery. Various tropical and citrus plants will be housed on the paved region from mid-October to April. They will move outdoors annually in spring and summer to grace the Kresko Victorian Garden, Bakewell Ottoman Garden and other display gardens. Potted cactus and aroids from the Garden’s collections will also be featured.
The merbaby statue in the center of the pool is very popular among children who visit the Linnean House. Sculpted in 1939 by Wheeler Williams, this statue depicts the Greek goddess Amphitrite as a merbaby. The statue was placed in the Linnean House in 1986. It is often decorated with fallen blossoms.
The Linnean House is named in honor of Carl Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy,” a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who laid the foundation for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature. Marble busts of Linnaeus and fellow scientists Thomas Nuttall and Asa Gray have adorned the conservatory’s south-facing façade since 1883; the pediment ornaments were the first sculptures in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s collection.