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Wardian Cases (and Terrariums)

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 “What’s a Wardian case?” my sister asked, when I told her in an email that I’d just acquired one.

As well she might. These days, most people call them terrariums, or mini-greenhouses, or cuter names which I’ll refrain from using.

But if you grow imported plants – and almost everyone does – Wardian cases are an invisible but important part of your garden. Back in the days before air freight, or even steam shipping and railroads, plant explorers were often frustrated by the amount of plants that arrived dead. Sailing ships might take many months to go from, say, South America or India or China to Europe. There was no temperature control, and fresh water was at a premium. I imagine sailors looking askance at the plant collector who wanted to use valuable drinking and cooking water for a bunch of dead-looking roots.

Plant collectors who shipped their acquisitions with other people had even more problems. Years ago, I wrote a book review on Anne Leighton’s history of U.S.  horticulture. (It’s really a history of white anglo upper-class U.S. horticulture, so it’s incomplete, but fascinating.) In one of her books, she quotes a rather crabby letter to a sea captain who was entrusted with bringing plants from a collector here to a plant enthusiast in England.

The sea captain, it appears, had not been too anxious to spend water or time on the plants, so they sat in unfortunate places on the journey, and more than half of them died. The other ones weren’t in great shape, either.

The English plant collector’s frustration was more than we might experience by ordering from a catalogue that ships us puny, half-dead plants. Plant importers of the time were rabid plant nuts, somewhat like old rose enthusiasts now: they looked for the unusual, the long-hidden, the thing that everybody else didn’t have. The plants they imported were expensive and unique. It might take years to replace them. Or they might never be available again.

Plant collectors were also commercial. In the 1700s, wealthy people began to show off their money and culture by growing imported plants on their estates. Imported plants were rare, pricey, and something your neighbor could envy. They were an ideal way to genteelly show your wealth.

The working class, meanwhile, was importing plants in the old-fashioned way: gardeners have been taking seeds and cuttings from wealthy employers for a long time. Once in the cottage gardens, the exotic plants spread from hand to hand.

By the mid-1800s, middle-class homeowners had adopted the exotic-plant craze, – on a smaller scale, of course. Imported plants had become big business, and smart horticultural entrepreneurs were springing up everywhere.

New technology made this possible. New technology in the form of a Wardian case.

In 1829, Dr. Nathaniel BagshawWard discovered that plants could survive for very long times under glass without care.  He was actually tying to create an entomology exhibit, a case holding a moth pupa in a “natural environment”.

 As time went by, he noticed that the ferns he’d put in as part of the environment were surviving well – better than the ones in his garden, in fact, which were overrun by smog (they called it “pea-soupers” back then, but it was still smog).

The tightly sealed environment allowed plants to survive where before they died miserably. The Hookers, a father and son plant exploring team, knew Ward, and they were quick to see its use. On their Antarctic expedition, they shipped back plants in Wardian cases. Successfully.

Ward became interested in the commercial uses of his case, and experimented by shipping English ferns and grasses to Sydney, Australia – then a six-month journey by sea. The plants arrived in perfect shape, and the native Australian plants he brought back to England on an 8-month trip (they hit a lot of storms) did well, too.

After that, they were quickly adopted, not only by plant hunters but by plant growers who enjoyed having their own little worlds to construct and put on a parlor table. Terrariums are the modern descendants of Wardian cases, and they are still pleasing for the same reasons.

Those of you who are interested only in the history of Wardian cases can stop reading now. Those of you who are toying with the notion of your own Wardian case, or just wonder what kinds of shapes and sizes they come in, can keep reading.  Because my own connection with Wardian cases is also something of a commercial venture.

Daffodil Planter, who edits and blogs at H. Potter, as well as her own blog  and the enticing morsels of Dirt du Jour, told me that, if I was one of the first 25 people to sign on as an H. Potter affiliate, I would get a Wardian case.

A Wardian case is a long-held garden fantasy of mine. Not one I tell to a lot of people, since I hate to be thought of as a “cute” gardener. But, well, there is an appeal in having a tiny world you can design to your taste. Much of the world is out of our control, so it’s nice to think that this shoebox-sized patch is  mine, all mine.

Since I know H. Potter containers are well-made, I feel fine about advertising them. And since I got my own Wardian case, I’ve been admiring it from different angles. At last I have a greenhouse. Even if it’s tiny.

I love the little cross-shaped openings that act as vents, just like a real greenhouse

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And the completely unnecessary but very appealing spiral metal edging.

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If you want to indulge your own fantasy and look at more Wardian cases, click that nice discreet terrarium ad on my right sidebar.

If you want ideas about how to plant a Wardian case, check out English Creek Gardens,  or read Tovah Martin’s post on terrariums for children at the H. Potter blog.  (Tovah Martin is a member of the family at Logee’s, a nursery that’s been growing greenhouse plants since Victorian days.)

If you’re an orchid grower, this post  by Susan Taylor can give you ideas for making a tiny greenhouse full of orchids. And if you want to get even more exotic, you can have a case full of carnivorous plants .

I’m not sure yet what I’ll plant in my Wardian case. I’m still dealing with fall planting, so I have all winter to fantasize. I could go for the original Wardian-type fern planting. But then again, a Wardian case allows me to grow tropical plants I couldn’t otherwise manage.

I’ll have a lot of fun deciding.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Sylvia (England) October 4, 2010, 12:29 am

    Pomona, I love your Wardian case too. It is one of the nicest I have seen. I would really like one but have nowhere to display it at the moment – one day. I think you are going to have a lot of fun deciding on your plants but it is going to be difficult to make the final decision. I do hope you share it with us, as I would like to see it complete with plants.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)
    PS I have an idea of where I could put one, I need to measure the shelve and see if I can find one as nice as yours that would fit!

  • Pomona Belvedere October 8, 2010, 4:40 pm

    Hi Sylvia, thanks for the idea of putting up a post on the planted Wardian case. You’re right, it will be difficult to make the final decision. I’m going to have to measure shelving, too! Thanks for reminding me.

  • Jan (Thanks For Today) October 9, 2010, 7:41 am

    That’s a LOT of history, Pomona! Thanks for the details. I don’t have a Wardian case but have had terrariums in the past. I will keep this in mind, for sure;-)

  • lostlandscape (James) October 9, 2010, 10:05 pm

    A cool device with a cool history! I first encountered mention of these in an old orchid manual, so old that it had few illustrations, and none of the mystical Wardian case. It’s nice to see them being brought back into the limelight, in part with your help!

  • Genevieve Schmidt October 12, 2010, 12:57 pm

    I just got one of these cool Wardian Cases from H Potter, too! I love the little details that make it so nice. I think I want to do a vaguely Christmassy theme in mine – one that I can leave be until spring and then maybe pop some mini bulbs and baby ferns in there!

  • Pomona Belvedere October 28, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Jan, terrariums are one of those things I always meant to do and never did – so I’m impressed that you did!

    James, it makes total sense that orchids would be a big candidate for shipping orchids, since they seem very humidity-dependent. I love technology like Wardian cases – no working parts!

    Genevieve, I like your seasonal ideas for your case! Like having a little seasonal indicator in the house (western version of a tokonama?)

  • Vanessa November 15, 2010, 7:09 pm

    What loveliness and it’s always nice to hear the history behind something. Love your site.

  • Pomona Belvedere November 17, 2010, 12:25 pm

    Thank you, Vanessa. Glad you stopped by.

  • Richard Neale November 18, 2011, 11:17 am

    Please could you let me know if there is a stockist for Wardian cases (H Potter) in the U.K.

  • Daffodil Planter December 9, 2011, 7:35 pm

    Richard, Sorry to say that H. Potter products are sold only in the US.

  • Xenia October 24, 2015, 12:45 pm

    Hi Nancy,Standing ovation!!! Oh how btieuaful! It must have been so fantastic’to attend such a magical workshop! I love what you created, just gorgeous! I have no idea how to make something like that and would love to learn! I truly can’t wait to visit your blog! Evertime I do, there is something that takes my breath away!I would love to visit that shop!Thank you so much for you sweet comments yesterday :-)Will keep you in my prayers.Hugs,Debi

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