Page from N. B Ward's publication 'On the growth of plants in closely glazed cases', 1852 edition. The illustration depicts a 'Wardian Case' which was developed by Ward, a Physician with an interest in Botany, to protect his fern specimens from air pollution in London. It was later used as a method of safely transporting plant specimens from plant hunting expeditions back to Britain following successful tests by Ward in 1833 on a ship travelling from England to Australia.

The history of terrariums: the Wardian case

How an accidental discovery by a fern collector in the East End of London led 
to the creation of the Wardian case, and one of the most remarkable inventions in horticultural history. Words Juliet Giles

In November 1834, George Loddiges of the Conrad Loddiges & Sons Nursery in Hackney, east London, took charge of a shipment of plants from Sydney, Australia. Among the plants was the first live introduction to the UK of the delicate coral fern Gleichenia microphylla and several Callicoma serratifolia that had grown from seed on the journey. The plants had spent the eight-month voyage on the deck of the ship, unwatered, in temperatures that had ranged from -7ºC to 49ºC, but they arrived back in London it what Loddiges described as a ‘very healthy state’ because they were the first plants to be shipped to the UK in a Wardian case. These closely glazed cases revolutionised the movement of live plants around the globe.

Advertisement
What Ward had created was essentially a terrarium

Loddiges estimated that before he began using the cases he would lose 19 out of every 20 plants he imported during a sea voyage, but in the Wardian cases he found 19 out of 20 was the average that survived. However, although, Loddiges was the first nurseryman to use the case, he didn’t invent it, the idea had come from one of his clients, a doctor, and keen amateur botanist and entomologist, called Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward.

Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)
Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)
© The Natural History Museum / Alamy Stock Photo

Ward had a passion for ferns and had hoped to create a fernery in the garden of his home in Wellclose Square in east London, but in the early 19th century, the air in the East End was so thick with coal soot that all attempts to grow the ferns in his garden proved futile until, quite by accident, he stumbled upon a solution. One day in 1829 he had placed the pupa of a sphinx moth in a sealed glass bottle so that he could observe more closely its metamorphosis. As he made notes on the daily changes he noticed that water from the leaf mould he’d used to cover the pupa would evaporate during the day, condense on the jar’s sides and then when temperatures dropped run back down to the mould, creating a mini ecosystem. Then, as he later described: ‘About a week prior to the final change of insect, a seedling Fern and Grass made their appearance upon the surface’. With the moth removed, he kept the bottle on his study window and watched how the plants continued thrive until the bottle’s lid rusted.

1754: Great Exhibition, Hyde Park, London, 1851. Interior view of the Crystal Palace showing two visitors being shown a stand of oriental products. In the right hand front corner a man and woman admire plants in a Wardian case.
1754: Great Exhibition, Hyde Park, London, 1851. Interior view of the Crystal Palace showing two visitors being shown a stand of oriental products. In the right hand front corner a man and woman admire plants in a Wardian case.
© Universal History Archive/Getty Images

What Ward had created was essentially a terrarium, and a way for him to grow ferns. But after successful experiments with a range of other plants he began see other uses. As a doctor in the East End he was acutely aware of the problems of poor nutrition among the poor and hoped the cases might be a way for many to grow vegetables in polluted cities, but he also saw another, more commercial, use: as a solution to the problems in transporting plants by sea. At the time, plants would often be left to languish in a ship’s cargo where they mostly died through lack of light and fresh water, but even if kept on deck, they could perish through exposure to salt water, winds and extremes of temperature. Ward was convinced his sealed cases would allow plants to be stored for several months on deck in sunlight, without any attention or watering. To prove his point, in June 1833 he and Loddiges filled two sturdy cases with a mix of ferns and grasses and sent them on the exposed deck of a ship to Sydney where they arrived in perfect condition. The cases were refilled and returned with the plants Loddiges collected in November 1834.

A terrarium
©John Tlumacki /Getty Images

Ward published the results of his experiments in On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases in 1842, by which time he had already convinced his friend Sir William Hooker of their usefulness. Hooker became the first official director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1841, and his son, Joseph, was one of the first botanists to use the cases to send plants back to Kew from an expedition to New Zealand. By 1847 the Wardian case was in regular use by Kew, not always with complete success – ‘I now call Ward’s cases ‘Ward’s coffins!’ bemoaned Joseph Hooker after losing a badly packed a consignment of plants – but successful enough that Sir William Hooker reported that in just 15 of years use, he had imported six times as many plants to Kew than had been imported in the previous century. Over time the cases were further developed to better protect the plants, by including crossed battens to hold the plants in place on rough crossings, and ventilation holes covered in perforated zinc to keep out rodents, and Kew continued to use Wardian cases up until 1962.

Interior of Nathaniel Ward's fern greenhouse, Clapham, London, 1851
Interior of Nathaniel Ward’s fern greenhouse, Clapham, London, 1851
© Florilegius / Alamy Stock Photo

Many familiar garden plants first travelled to this country in a Wardian case, but its use didn’t just change the look of our gardens. By allowing the transport of foods and cash crops the case transformed our diets and helped shape our economy. The banana from which the seedless Cavendish banana was developed was carried to Chatsworth in a Wardian case. In 1848 the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune used Wardian cases to smuggle more than 20,000 Camellia sinensis plants out of China to establish tea plantations in India and bring an end to the Chinese monopoly on tea. Twelve years later the English geographer Sir Clements Markham smuggled Cinchona officinalis shrubs out of South America in Wardian cases to establish plantations in British colonies. The quinine produced from the bark of these Cinchona officinalis was instrumental in the expansion of the British Empire, as it enabled Europeans to live in areas where malaria was rife. In fact, without quinine, argues the historian Daniel R Headrick in The Tools of Empire, ‘European colonialism would have been almost impossible in Africa, and much costlier elsewhere in the tropics.’

As well as the practical cases used in the field, ornamental versions of the Wardian case were made, which allowed even those on relatively modest incomes to bring some exotic greenery into their homes, and helped fuel the Victorian crazes for ferns and orchids (first brought to the UK in a Wardian case). But despite the cases’ popularity, Ward made little money from his invention, and continued to practice as a doctor in the East End before retiring to Clapham. His passion for ferns never left him, and in the garden of his home in Clapham Rise he finally achieved his fernery in a large, closed glasshouse, described in an 1851 magazine article as ‘a representation (in miniature of course) of a tropical forest’. When he died in 1868, his fern herbarium contained around 25,000 specimens.

Advertisement

Keep your eyes peeled for our October issue of Gardens Illustrated for more on ferns, Nathaniel Bradshaw Ward and terrariums.