“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
And the completely unnecessary but very appealing spiral metal edging.
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.