Wardian Cases: The First Early Terrariums for Plants

Wardian cases were an early type of terrarium that were sealed protective containers for plants. They were created by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor, after he noticed the effects of hermetically sealed glass containers in 1829. Of his discovery he wrote:

“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, became condensed on the internal surface of the glass, and returned whence it came; thus keeping the mould always in the same degree of humidity. About a week prior … a seedling fern and a grass made their appearance on the surface of the mould. I could not be struck with the circumstance of one of that very tribe of plants, which I had for years fruitlessly attempted to cultivate, coming up sponte suá in such a situation; and asked myself seriously what were the conditions necessary for growth?”[1]

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

This piqued his interest and he began to investigate. He then noted four necessary conditions to grow plants successfully: light, heat, moisture, and a soot-free atmosphere because where Ward lived his yard was surrounded by heavy pollution (sulphuric gas and acid rain) due to the factories that surrounded his Sherlock-Holmes type residence. Realizing that these conditions could be met inside his bottle, he decided to conduct a test and placed a bottle outside the window of his study. He found a natural cycle had been established. The plants continued to grow, the water continued to circulate, and that the plants required no attention on his part.

Ward then began to successfully cultivate hundreds of ferns in various glass cases, which became known as Wardian cases, and completely succeeded with them. He then began to grow many other types of plants in his cases. These also proved successful and led to him realize that his cases could be used not just for ornamental reasons but also for commercial purpose.

A plate from “The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland,” a book from the era of pteridomania. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One commercial use for the cases was shipping delicate plants, particularly tropical or exotic plants. Such plants were hard to obtain because temperatures aboard ships fluctuated widely, sea spray killed them, and other hazards and expenses associated with transportation by sea made it practically impossible for them to arrive safely. In addition, the cases relieved sea captains and their crew from having to perform the “irksome” duty of looking after and tending the tender plants.

To help Ward determine the success of his Wardian cases in such a setting, nurseryman George Loddiges joined with him in his venture. Loddiges had for some time been publicizing his plants and ferns in a business catalog publication called The Botanical Cabinet. Together the men devised a plan to transport plants by ship to England from different countries inside the Wardian cases.

George Loddiges. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To accomplish this, Ward hired carpenters to build his cases and Loddiges exported various native British plants to Sydney, Australia. With previous shipping methods only about one of twenty plants survived, but using the Wardian cases, after months of travel, the plants arrived well and thriving with a success rate of about nineteen out of twenty. Tender plants from Australia were then shipped in reverse to London using the same method and likewise the Australian plants arrived in perfect condition. Prior to this time only imported seeds were used to create exotic plants in England. However, being able to ship live plants showed that they could be safely transported in Wardian cases without ventilation and that they would continue to thrive.

As to how the shipping was accomplished, this description was provided by The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening:

“Wardian Cases are made in different sizes to hold small or somewhat large plants, as the case may be. The pots are usually packed in soil or cocoa fibre, and held in position by narrow strips of wood, which are firmly secured by nailing them close down on the top of each inside the Case. The roof, if it may be so called, is made of two frames which fit on the ends and meet together at the top, where they form a ridge. They are glazed, and the glass protected by thin pieces of wood, which are fixed a short distance apart, so as to allow as much light as possible to pass inside. One or both of these sash-frames is movable, and may be unscrewed and taken off for the purpose of packing or unpacking. When travelling, Wardian Cases are nearly air-tight, so that but little evaporation of air can take place, only a small circular hole, covered with perforated zinc, being allowed at each of the ends near the top. The frames in which the glass is embed are made airtight by being fitted up with putty before being screwed. Instructions are invariably given as to the part of the ship where Wardian Cases should be placed during the voyage.”[2]

Wardian cases - octagon shaped

Octagonal Wardian case. Author’s collection.

One assessment of Wardian cases and their success in successfully shipping plants stated:

“When properly constructed, the Wardian Case answers perfectly as a means of transporting plants to great distance. It also has its value in place where the air is filled with floating soot or dust; or where it is naturally too dry for vegetation, as in sitting-rooms. There the lives of certain kinds of plants may be maintained for a long period of time, with the appearance of health; shade-loving races, such as Ferns and Mosses, will even thrive there; and others, like dry Crocuses and Hyacinths, which have been previously been made ready by the usual processes, out of doors may be led to blossom in perfection for a season, or in some instances for more.”[3]

Having proven that the cases were successful in growing and preserving plants, the cases began to be used to import all sorts of plants. “Nurserymen and florists began to place huge orders for ‘exotics’ from every corner of the globe, and at last the Victorian craving for orchids, pitcher-plants, aspidistras, and the like could be fully satisfied.”[4] However, people soon noted there were many other advantages to the Wardian cases besides just shipping delicate or exotic plants.

Plant collectors, botanists, and indoor gardeners discovered them and loved them. Nonetheless, adoption by the public of the Wardian cases was initially difficult because they were expensive. The glass used to construct them had a heavy excise duty that had existed since Napoleon Bonaparte fought against various European powers in the Napoleonic Wars. “It was only after 1845, when the glass tax was repealed, that the way became clear for Ward’s invention to realize its full potential.”[5]

Once glass became cheaper, the cases became more affordable and before long many of the working class wanted a case in their home. Of course, this desire was aided by those responsible for pushing such fads. They began to encourage their use with one nineteenth century newspaper, the Wells Journal, describing them as “rustic adornments” and stating:

“‘The Wardian Case’ would be a great adornment to an apartment is [of course] obvious; while another advantage is, that it would be a source of attraction to invalids confined to the house, who may thereby enjoy, even on a sick bed, the consoling and health inspiring presence of nature. One reason why ‘the case’ is preferable to flowers in pots is — ‘because while they maintain great freshness and luxuriance, they confine the exhalations which are often prejudicial to the patient.’”[6]

As Wardian cases grew in popularity they were found in varying shapes, sizes, and styles. There were round, oblong, square, rectangular, and tubular ones and they ranged from small to huge. Some sat on elaborately carved stands of expensive woods, such as mahogany, oak, or rosewood, or sometimes they were just a cylindrical dome sitting on a table. Some looked like miniature greenhouses or nothing more than a plain rectangular glass box.

Wardian cases - fancinful

Fanciful Wardian case. Author’s collection.

The Wardian case also seemed to contribute to “pteridomania,” a compound word comprised of Pteridophytes (essentially ferns) and mania. The term came into being in 1855 after Charles Kingsley used it in his book Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Before long pteridomania and ferns were synonymous with the cases and “fern fever” was raging. However, author Lynn Barber notes:

“In fact it is quite possible to grow ferns without a Wardian case, and it is perfectly possible to grow other plants besides ferns in a Wardian case, but – perhaps for no better reason than that Ward himself had favoured ferns to begin with – Wardian cases quickly became synonymous with ferns in the Victorian mind.”[7]  

“Gathering Ferns” from “The Illustrated London News,” July 1871. Public domain.

As pteridomania gained steam, the press exploited its popularity. Hundreds of books and articles were written about ferns, including a magazine named the Phytologist that focused on ferns. Its first publication appeared in June of 1844 and stated that it existed because of “the desire of recording and preserving FACTS, OBSERVATIONS and OPINIONS relating to Botany in general, but more especially to British Botany.”[8]

From about 1850 to the 1890s Wardian cases were popular. The English magazine, The Villa Gardener, reported on their popularity in 1873 stating:

“Ten years ago the graceful hanging-basket was the thing … [but] rapidly gave way to the more expensive rustic stand or Wardian case, which being less readily imitated by people of limited means, is likely to continue longer ‘fashionable.’”[9]

Wardian cases - various

Various Wardian cases. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With its popularity also came many directions about how people could construct their own case. One set of instructions stated:

“An earthenware or metallic trough, with a nicely-adapted bell-glass or glazed framework, is to be procured; and supposing that ferns are to be grown in the case the mode of arranging it as follows: This trough is to be filled to the height of an inch or two with broken pieces of stone, potsherds, &c.; upon this mixture of peat and loam is to be placed, and then on the surface any picturesque arrangement of rock work or artificial elevation. The ferns are then planted, the mould is thoroughly saturated with water, the glass covering is fitted on, and the case is placed in a situation where it may be sufficiently exposed to light, and, in the case of ferns, not to the full courses of the sun’s rays. In order to allow of the drainage of the superfluous water, it is necessary either to have apertures perforated in the bottom of the case, or a depression in the least conspicuous corner, from which such superfluous water may be removed, by means of a sponge or syringe.”[10]

Wardian cases - constructing them

Constructing a Wardian case. Public domain.

Eventually it seemed as if everyone had a Wardian case at home. Having the Wardian cases appearing everywhere made them less appealing and less popular and the fad began to wane. Nonetheless, the cases helped stimulate a new craze that happened around the mid-1860s when chemist Robert Warington developed the aquarium.

Ward had stated years earlier that “one of his most interesting experiments … [he did was] a large ‘aquarium,’ containing a great number of fishes and aquatic plants, the latter preserving the purity of the water and air for many years.”[11] People had been raising goldfish in bowls for years but the shimmering fish died easily from a lack of oxygen if their owners did not constantly change the water. Warington realized that the idea behind Wardian cases could help solve this problem:

“What made the aquarium craze possible was the discovery that if plants were added to the water they would give off enough oxygen to support animal life. Various people had discovered this accidentally over the years, but Warington was the first person to explain it properly and publicize it.”[12]

Wardian cases also helped to break the long-time geographic monopolies that existed at the time related to agricultural goods. For example, Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, plant hunter, and traveler, smuggled out of Shanghai, China, 20,000 tea plants. He shipped them in Wardian cases to British India, which then enabled the establishment of the tea plantations of Assam. Additionally, imported rubber tree seeds from Brazil were germinated in the heated glasshouses of Kew and then shipped in Wardian cases to Malaya and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which thereby enabled the establishment of rubber plantations.

Even though the Wardian cases fell out of fashion by the 1890s they were still being mentioned years later. For example, in 1913 the Manawatu Standard reported:

“Mr. Geo Matthews … has forwarded to this office a couple of blooms … of ‘Araucaria imbricata,’ a forest tree now flowering for the first time. A native of Chili … it attains a height of one hundred and fifty feet in its native habitat. … these blooms were taken … twenty-five years [ago] … as a pot plant, having the protection of a Wardian case. … the seeds of this conifer when subjected to an ocean voyage almost invariably fail to germinate, hence the necessity of importing young seedlings. Now, however, [because of the Wardian case] there are a considerable number of this majestic line in various parts of the Dominion.”[13]

References:

  • [1] N. B. Ward, On the growth of plants in closely glazed cases (London: John Van Voorst, 1842), p. 25–26.
  • [2] G. Nicholson, The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening: A Practical and Scientific Encyclopedia of Horticulture for Gardeners and Botanists v. 4 (New York: American Agriculturalist, 1889), p. 195.
  • [3] J. Lindley, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture: Or, An Attempt to Explain the Chief Operations of Gardening Upon Physiological Graounds (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855), p, 221.
  • [4] L. Barber, The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870 (New York City: Doubleday, 1980), p. 112.
  • [5] L. Barber. 1980, p. 112.
  • [6] Wells Journal, “Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste.,” June 28, 1856, p. 4.
  • [7] L. Barber. 1980, p. 112.
  • [8] The Phytologist: A Popular Botanical Miscellany v. 1 (London: John Van Voorst, 1844), p. v.
  • [9] The Villa Gardener v. 3 (London: Simpkin Marshall & Company, 1873), p. 373.
  • [10] Wells Journal, p. 4.
  • [11] Sheffield Independent, “The Growth of Plants and Flowers in Glass Cases,” February 10, 1855, p. 11.
  • [12] L. Barber. 1980, p. 116.
  • [13] Manawatu Standard, “A Botanical Curiosity,” April 18, 1913, p. 6.

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