The British plant hunters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries travelled the globe to seek out new and rare plants and bring them back home. However, after succeeding in finding and collecting their quarry, the most difficult part of the journey was to ensure it remained alive on the often long and treacherous sea voyage home.
Then in the early-nineteenth century an Englishman, Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, designed the perfect preservation tool and it was named after him – the Wardian Case.
Ward realised that keeping plants in a sealed and controlled environment would enable them to survive and thrive. He achieved this by constructing a case of wood and glass in which the plants would be placed and remain throughout the voyage. The cases travelled out in ‘flat-pack’ form ready to be assembled and filled with soil once the plants were ready. Once watered the plants drew up the moisture and lost it again through their foliage, setting in motion a self-sufficient lifecycle. Slats provided shading and protection from cold weather and also permitted sufficient light so that the moisture condensed on the glass and ran back into the soil. Problem solved.
These terrariums were soon transporting plants around the globe and played a key part in the successful introduction of new species into Britain and elsewhere.
Following its success as a means of transport it was not long before its potential as an ideal means of growing plants indoors was recognised. Here was an opportunity to have a miniature hot-house, brim-full of exotic plants, right in the middle of your living room. If space was at a premium or there was no garden available then a Wardian Case could supplement traditional indoor plants and window boxes. Our Vintage Words to the Wise title Room and Window Gardening mentions them as providing an ideal indoor gardening opportunity.
Indeed some Wardian Cases were designed as enclosed window boxes that were attached to the external window ledge and accessed by raising the sash window. To see examples of Wardian Cases visit www.pinterest.com/WttWBooks
Numerous examples in all shapes and sizes were soon available for the Victorian home. Works of art in their own right, manufactured using both wood and metal frames, they were particularly suited for ferns and in his beautifully illustrated book Ferns and Fern Culture the author John Birkenhead, Britain’s pre-eminent fern breeder of the time, extols the advantages of employing a Wardian Case. The fern craze that swept Britain in the late nineteenth century found its ideal environment in Dr Ward’s Case.
The BBC’s coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show this year featured James Wong talking about Wardian Cases and he showed one of the earliest known examples rediscovered recently in Cornwall. This looks very rustic in comparison with the delicate examples shown here but it was an original Wardian transportation case.
Also at Chelsea you might have noticed the silver medal-winning Cave Pavilion. Designed by Sophie Walker and sponsored by the Garden Museum this was a twenty-first century interpretation of a Wardian Case on a gigantic scale, with its theme being the relevance and importance of plant collecting today.
The revival of an interest in these curiosities could be down to the ever-decreasing size of our living spaces or it may be the demand for something different; something more than a Moth Orchid from the local supermarket. They can be constructed, bought as new or occasionally acquired as antiques. For a ready-made experience Hermetica London (www.hermeticalondon.co.uk) has a range of beautiful cases or they will create a bespoke terrarium to meet your taste.
A Wardian Case has to be a must-have item for any keen vintage home-stylist and anyone with a dose of enthusiasm for Steam Punk will love their intricate, Victorian styling that features a crossover between art, science and engineering – with a large helping of exoticism added to the mix.
And if all that wasn’t enough to get you interested IKEA has just released their 2014 take on the Wardian Case – a £25 indoor greenhouse – a homage perhaps to that original ‘flat-pack’ idea!