Houseplants enthusiasts owe a tremendous debt to the British. More accurately, it might be said that all plant enthusiasts owe a tremendous debt to the British. It was the British love of botany and plants in general that first sparked and later organized the 19th century explosion in the field of botany as explorers and scientists collected and identified thousands of species of plants. Along the way, they faced a thorny issue: how to transport live plants back to England without killing them?
The answer to this question lies in the development of the first modern terrarium, an ingenious device known as the Wardian Case.
The Problem with Tropical Plants
Throughout the 19th century, the interest in tropical plants boomed throughout the industrialized countries of Europe. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the development of methods to build large "glasshouses," or greenhouses. The most magnificent of these were certainly built at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens just outside London, where huge glasshouses were built to shelter all sorts of tropical plants from the far reaches of the British Empire. Operating in glasshouses like these, botanists first cultivated citrus in the early 19th century.
In 1827, that same principal was applied on a much smaller scale by an English doctor named Nathaniel Ward, who maintained a practice in London. According to the website Terrariums.net, Dr. Ward was an amateur botanist who loved to grow ferns in his yard. Unfortunately, however, the air was so thoroughly polluted by nearby coal plants that none of Dr. Ward's ferns survived. At the same time, Dr. Ward was experimenting with growing caterpillars into moths and butterflies using glass hatching jars (which we still do today).
As the story goes, Dr. Ward noticed that seeds had sprouted in the bottom of one of his caterpillar jars. These plants were healthy and flourished in the humid bottle conditions. He was struck with an inspiration.
Hoping to grow more healthy plants, Dr. Ward expanded his plans and soon developed miniature glass terrariums, based on the same principles used in the larger glasshouses of the day. He called his original cases "fern cases" because they were designed to house his fern collection. They were designed as both functional and attractive objects. It wasn't long before these lovely cases caught on with the masses and became a status symbol and coveted design element. Throughout Victorian England, wealthier families frequently featured Wardian cases in their parlors, filling them with lovely and exotic plants, especially tropical plants and specimens that thrived on the humidity inside the case. Over time, wealthier families competed to see who could show the most ostentatious case. Poorer households frequently had to make due with a small glass box, not unlike the aquarium terrariums we design today.
The development of the Wardian case also helped touch off a massive orchids collection boom in England as it was finally possible for collectors to raise and bloom their own orchids. The orchid mania of the 19th century is well-documented.
But aside from allowing wealthy families to display tropical plants, the Wardian cases served another important purpose: they allowed explorers to collect delicate specimens and bring them home on ships, protected from salt spray and temperature changes. Before long, Wardian cases full of tropical plants and orchids were flowing back to England and filling the country's glasshouses and private collections.
As a result of this innovation, botanists now could collect and study, and begin hybridizing, thousands of species of tropical plants that would later become our beloved houseplants. Today, terrariums are popular methods to grow exotic houseplants, and with the right design, offer a low-maintenance path to lovely houseplants.