Botanic Superlatives: The First Terrarium

Botanic Superlatives: The First Terrarium

June 24, 2011
Photo by:; pd-art

I once visited a terrarium designer in the downtown commercial district of Los Angeles. It was an airy loft space, where glass cases were stacked as high as the ceiling, pencil sketches covered the walls, and young orchids grew alongside bookmarked horticulture books. Reptiles and ferns rustled in a dark back room. Dust and debris floated through the large windows from the bustling open air market two floors below. Though it was  far-removed from London's Victorian-era dockyard area, I imagine that the studio looked a bit like the workspace of Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who devised the first terrarium in 1829, and thereby launched a new age of horticultural possibilities—where ferns and mosses would grow indoors, and tropical exotics would travel the world. 

[Our story about The New Victorians.]

A physician by trade and enthusiastic botanist, Ward had been trying to cultivate ferns along an outdoor stone wall. Exposed to the polluted London air, the plants continually perished. It was when Ward noticed a fern growing in a sealed glass jar, that the accidental inventor began a flurry of experiments and designs. Soon thereafter, Ward introduced the Wardian Case—built with the tightest frame and the hardest materials, the cases promised a safe shelter for plants to travel the high seas, as far as Australia. In 1933, he filled two glass cases with native British ferns and grasses, and sent them off to Sydney. After six months, the plants arrived, still flourishing. Ward's cases were restocked with a number of Australian natives, for a long voyage back to London. They also weathered the journey, and received an enthusiastic welcome, as the exotics had previously been impossible to transport to British soil. 

Ward, case

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, 1866; image credit: Royal Horticultural Society; A Wardian Case; image credit: pd-art

In the years that followed, Wardian Cases were used in a number of historic botanic voyages that dissolved geographic agricultural monopolies: They transported Robert Fortune's famous 20,000 Chinese tea plants to India and they established Britain's colonial rubber industry in Sri Lanka. On the other side of things, these first terrariums launched an era of armchair botanists: Beautiful as well as functional, the ornate Wardian Cases would fill Victorian sitting rooms with ferns and orchids, both of which would become a popular craze. 

Ward himself considered his eponymous case no small accomplishment, publishing a lengthy book in 1824, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, which was an odd genre of combined memoir, philosophical treatise, botanic instructional, and social commentary. Ward also promoted his work through lectures and presentations, most dramatically at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where he displayed fern that had not been watered in 18 years, but was still flourishing, sealed in a Wardian Case. 

Kew, Wardian Case

A wooden Wardian Case, labeled "On Upper Deck, Under Awning," used for transporting plants in the 1960s, the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew; image credit: RBG Kew

[Our DIY article about how to make your own Moss Terrarium.) 

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.