Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, 1866

Readers may not know what a Wardian case is, but if I asked what a terrarium is everyone would know that it is a glass case into which are placed a bit of soil, a few adornments and plants, and sealed airtight to mimic the condensation and rain found in nature, making the case self-sufficient. The name refers to the creator, Mr. Nathan B. Ward, (1791-1868), who experimented with growing plants in such an environment beginning in 1829 in Wellclose Square London.

Legend has it that Dr. Ward, a physician and amateur botanist, noted seeds had sprouted inside a closed container in which he kept caterpillars. He left them undisturbed and noticed that the plants did quite well in their artificial environment.

During the age of discovery when plants were being collected and transported from one part of the world to another for scientific study, Mr. Ward’s case was said to keep the plants alive and viable during transport, thus before they adorned Victorian parlors, they served a much more practical purpose. Seedlings and plants which often died before reaching European botanists stood a much better chance of arriving healthy and viable in the cases.

Upon successfully transporting Australian ferns back to London, Dr. Ward published his findings in a pamphlet entitled, “The Growth of Plants Without Open Exposure to the Air” (1835). In 1842, he published “On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases”. His cases were so well received in English homes, that in 1854 he addressed the Royal Society at the Chelses Physic Garden, and was acknowledged for having improved commerce world-wide.

Plant explorer, Joseph Hooker, was among the first to use Ward’s cases returning with species collected during a four year voyage (1839 to 1843) with Capt. James Clark Ross.

Robert Fortune transported 20,000 tea plants from Shanghai to India where much of the world’s tea is still produced.

In poorly insulated and heated homes of the past two centuries, the cases graced homes with the beauty of live plants when a potted plant in a window sill would be killed by cold air coming in around the window. Children could learn how plants grew while parents could appreciate the variety in color and texture of a collection of ferns and mosses. Growing orchids in such a case fueled the Victorian fervor of growing the beautiful flowers.

The aviaries and conservatories of the 19th century may be viewed as Wardian cases on a colossal scale in that the glass allowed sunlight to reach the plants while limiting the drying effects of wind and the detrimental effects of salt spray or putrid air such as made it difficult for Dr. Ward to grow ferns during London’s industrial age.