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  • Writer's pictureSarah Fremont

The Wardian Case: The Origins of the Terrarium

London in the nineteenth century was plagued with deplorable air conditions. The industrial revolution had led to an influx of city factories that left the air laden with soot, causing unhealthy breathing conditions and difficulty growing plants in city gardens. One particular person, Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, living in London in 1832, had a passion for ferns but was unable to grow them in his garden due to the heavy pollution. One day, he placed a moth pupa in a sealed glass jar to observe its metamorphosis. As he made notes on the daily changes, he noticed that water, from the leaf mold he’d used to cover the pupa, would evaporate during the day and condense on the jar’s sides. Interestingly, when the temperature dropped, the water would run back down to the leaf mold, creating a mini ecosystem. After a few more weeks of observation, he noticed a fern seed from within the jar begin to sprout. He eventually removed the moth and noted how the fern continued to thrive for months within the jar. This led him to thinking about how he could use jars to grow his own ferns, grow food for the pollutant plagued city, and for the commercial use of transporting exotic plants from far away lands for propagation and study in England.

Ward was convinced his sealed cases would allow plants to be stored for several months on a deck in the sunlight, without any attention or watering. To prove his point, in June 1833, he 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 plants collected in November 1834.

The “Wardian Case,” as they began to be called, opened up the option of bringing varied foods and plants to the shores of England. Tea plants were smuggled out of China in these cases, ending China’s monopoly on this highly desirable export! 

Despite the popularity of the “Wardian Case,” Ward made little money from his invention and continued to practice as a doctor. However, his passion for ferns never left him. When he died in 1868, his backyard greenhouse was found to contain over 25,000 fern specimens! 

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