Wardian Case: A History of the Terrarium

Who hasn’t seen the popular, indoor, glass planters? Those round bottles with the narrow necks and cork lids, home to several small ferns and other greenery growing happily within them? Or perhaps you have seen a large glass structure, in the shape of a green house or dome, with small window frames and plants growing inside? Or what about those hanging globe balls containing a succulent or air plant? These are all examples of terrariums.

A Wardian Case in Black and White With Ferns and other tropical plants

Origins of the Wardian Case

The word terrarium came into use during the late 1800’s. It being derived from replacing the prefix ‘aqua’ in aquarium with ‘terra’ (meaning land). The story of the terrarium is an interesting one, because it was both unintentional, yet had a massive impact of the commercial success of transporting plants across the world.

It started with a general practitioner and keen amateur botanist, Doctor Nathaniel Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward full width photograph of the creator of the Wardian Case, later called TerrariumBagshaw Ward (1791 – 1868). Of whom the original terrarium, Wardian Case, was named after.

The invention revolutionized plant biology and was labelled as one of the great additions in garden history. Born in London, Ward was the son of a successful physician who practiced in the polluted docks of East London.

As a young boy, Nathaniel had a keen interest for the seas, and wanted to be a sailor. His father sent him away on a ship to the Caribbean Islands, where he experienced the beauty of the tropical flora on these landscapes. Plants ,such as the ferns and palms, that were mainly absent or uncommon in England at the time, played a pivotal role in his future endeavors.

Dr.Ward’s Luck

Mr.Ward was an avid collector and grower of plants, and would often spend the morning in the garden before visiting his patients. The air around the docks were heavily polluted from surrounding factories, and thus made growing plants outdoors difficult. The plants were affected by the gases and acid rain released from the chimneys and furnaces. Ward was unsuccessful in getting his favorite plants, those he encountered on his journey to the Caribbean, and other tropical plants he had read about, to grow. He soon gave up on pursuing this interest and turned his attention to entomology.

In 1829, while studying a hawk moth chrysalis, Ward made the accidental discovery that led to the invention of the terrarium. He recites:

I had buried the chrysalis of a Sphinx in some moist mould contained in a wide-mouthed glass bottle, covered with a lid. In watching the bottle from day to day, I observed that the moisture which, during the heat of the day arose from the mould, condensed on the surface of the glass, and returned whence it came; thus keeping the earth always in the same degree of humidity. About a week prior to the final change of the insect, a seedling fern and a grass made their appearance on the surface of the mould .

The mould he referred of was decomposed leaves, popular in gardening, as well as, a suitable environment for worms to form a cocoon in. The grass was a common lawn weed, whilst the fern was a Dryopteris filix-mas. Under normal conditions these plants would have decayed due to the harsh, toxic atmosphere. Dr.Ward observed that these plants thrived well in the enclosed glass without any additional care. This experiment lasted several years, until the lid rusted through whilst he was away.

Traditional Wardian Case terrarium large with ferns. A small bird is present in this drawing.

The Economic Importance of the Wardian Case

A nursery that supplied Dr.Ward plants helped to further test this Wardian Case at Kew Gardens 1960new discovery. Shipments of plants were sent in Wardian Cases to England, of which the success rate well exceeded the plants that had been shipped in the open. The Wardian Case helped transport medicinal, economic and ornamental plants from across the world, helping communities establish and share greater varieties of flora.

Sir William Hooker, a director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, like many other plant collectors, faced the problem of bringing back live specimens from other climates. Dr.Ward, fueled by his successful trials, built and filled two wooden-framed cases with soil and plants, sealed them, and shipped them out to sea. All the plants arrived back in excellent condition, despite massive changes in weather conditions throughout the journey. Sir William Hooker stated that more plants had been imported to Kew in that decade using the Wardian Case than in the previous century.


Wooden Old Wardian Cases Photo


A Rise in Popularity of the Terrarium

Classic Wardian Case drawing black and whiteAn interest in tropical, exotic species of plants during the early 1900’s led to a rise in the commercial value of Wardian Cases. The wealthy class of English, serious about garden fashion, took a keen interest in the terrarium as a fashionable planter for the Victorian parlor. The ornamental versions of Wardian Cases were built in glass, and took the shape of a greenhouse or classic dome. They were used to display orchids and ferns, that needed more humid, wet conditions to grow in.

These terrariums got more and more lavish the wealthy the owner. Some even went so far as being built with expensive metals or wood. Large Wardian Cases were set up in houses big enough to walk in. Some were a combination of a planter and an aquarium. It was not uncommon to use a Wardian Case to hold exotic species of animals in as well, such as frogs or spiders.

As for the doctor, he made little profits from this popular and useful invention. Nathaniel Ward went on to being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society and worked as a physician till an old age. He never gave up on his passion for exotic plants, of which he has 25 000 specimens of ferns in his herbarium when he died in 1868.



The Traditonal Terrarium

Classic Terrarium in 1954. A black and white photograph of lady making a terrarium with plants

The Wardian Case was traditionally seen as a means to transport and grow exotic plants in. With the change in gardening interests the popularity of these big, bulky displays fell away.

The terrarium was a smaller, more science class-type of micro-garden. Room filled with terrariums 1954The emphasis was less on showing off rare tropical species, but on understanding the principles of the water cycle and how plants could grow under these conditions. Thus the terrarium became more of an experiment, often conducted in schools, where learners or amateur botanists would see how long a plant would last in a sealed container. The typical glassware would be an old fish tank, jam jar or plastic bottle.

In the last decade there has been a resurgence in old fashions and style.
The Victorian elegance of the big glass displays were seen as a trending indoor planter. Displaying plants in glassware allows for a modern way to grow plants inside. With the glass showing off more of the little landscape, such as the roots or ground cover. A terrarium with high walls, or a curved lid contains all the leaves and dirt, preventing any chance of a mess inside the house.

The Modern Terrarium as a Decor Piece

Terrariums can be classified into two distinct categories: open and closed terrariums.

Closed terrariums are those glass cases with lids or cork covers. This essentially seals the plants inside, creating a closed ecosystem of which humidity and moisture are contained. Whilst open terrariums are typical glasses that have a wide opening or lack a seal. Open terrariums are perfect for more dry, succulent species of plants.

Today, creativity and the availability of resources allows for new creations and hybrids of terrariums. They have become a massive talking point and a major player in modern interior design. Houses that wish to incorporate a low-maintenance, yet attractive indoor planter to their rooms can choose a terrarium. Terrariums are wonderful in that they are living art pieces. One can really create a magical landscape within a small glass.

Modern terrarium light bulb plants

Glass Gardens is a living art studio specializing in the creation of these landscapes. We make wonderful, lasting terrariums perfect for any bedroom or office. Our decor is unique and suitable for most climates. We offer terrariums in a wide range of colors, sizes and plant species. We can make you any terrarium or indoor planter design you might have. Please feel free to contact us or shop from some of our terrariums online.

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