Sunday, March 5, 2017

Amelia's Terrarium

In this, my third post and final post on glass conservatories of the nineteenth century, I'm featuring the smallest one of all, the Wardian case, named after Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868) of London. As the inventor of a glass-enclosed growing chamber, one would think Dr. Ward was a botanist looking for a way of regulating growing conditions but it wasn't so. Dr. Ward was simply a physician with a passion for botany who noticed something growing in a specimen jar.

English botanists had been gathering exotic species of plant material and shipping them back to England since the end of the 16th century, but something like 9 out of every 10 living plants died enroute due to the salty air and lack of sun, fresh water, and proper care. The most viable way was relegated to transporting seeds, corms, and rhizomes. 

Pre-nineteenth Century Plant Transportation Methods, The Natural Life of the Tea-Tree, 1799

Around 1829, Dr. Ward noticed the germination of a fern spore and a species of grass growing in a sealed glass bottle which held one of his moth cocoons. Not realizing what he'd discovered, Ward observed the bottle, but otherwise left it undisturbed for four years. During that time, the grass bloomed once. It wasn't until the seal rusted allowing bad air into the bottle that the plants died. 

Air pollution was a major hazard of England's industrialized cities at the time. Much of what has been attributed to the infamous London fog wasn't a fog but sooty air pollution from the coke and coal used to heat homes, businesses and industries. Its effect was devastating on anything that required oxygen to survive.

A London fog drawn by Duncan. Page 8, The Illustrated London News, Volume 10, January to June 1847. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Suspecting that plants could live in a closed environment if their needs were met, he instructed a carpenter to build a tightly fitted glazed wooden case and then added ferns inside.

The ferns thrived.

Would plants survive a sea voyage in such a case? Unlike before, the Wardian case could be brought onto the deck and into the light without worry of salt spray on their leaves. 
In 1833, Dr. Ward tested his theory when he sent a Wardian case of British ferns and grasses to Sydney, Australia. The voyage took several months, yet the plants arrived in good condition. With the Wardian case restocked with native species of Australia, the ship returned and even after a long, stormy voyage arrived with intact healthy plants. 

After more successful voyages, the Wardian case became indispensable to the transportation of plant specimens and was instrumental in the establishment of many new industries around the world, such as tea plantations, rubber plantations, and other agricultural goods.

According to the BBC article, Wardian Case, "There is no park in London without a plant that travelled in Dr. Ward's Case."

The Wardian Case also had a dramatic effect on Victorian furnishings as it soon became a common feature of stylish drawing rooms on both sides of the Atlantic.

With the Victorian penchant for the stately ornate, the simplicity of that first glazed wooden Wardian case soon grew into large iron and glass structures, many of which last to this day.

Although a quick search on Pinterest will show many of these creations in color photographs, for authenticity I've kept the images shown here to those found in 19th century books. 

So why did I title this post, Amelia's Terrarium, if I'm talking about Wardian Cases? Because around 1885-1890, society began to use the term, terrarium, when talking about a glass structure to house plants and/or land animals, and an aquarium to showcase sea creatures. From then on, Wardian Cases became known as terrariums.

In my novella, Sweet Love Grows, my heroine, Amelia Cord, is being evicted from her estate and must leave behind  everything she holds dear, including her favorite plants in the conservatory.

However, she is given the chance to take a few plants if they can fit in a small terrarium, such as the one pictured on the right. If I'd called it a Wardian Case, my readers wouldn't have a clear image of what I was trying to portray, especially since googling Wardian brings up everything Edwardian. Hence, I used the new word, terrarium. 

My post on what I imagined Amelia's conservatory would look like, as well as other conservatories, can be found through the following links:
Botanical Conservatories
- White House Conservatory: Then and Now

More images are featured on my Pinterest boards:

Conservatory and Greenhouse
- Wardian Case Terrarium Victorian

Years ago, I bought a small foot-long terrarium something like in the last image above. At the time I didn't realize how to use it properly thus it was always too wet and mossy inside. I believe it's still packed away after our many moves and one of these days I'm going to dig it out and put it on display, with or without plants as a reminder of the trials my heroine Amelia went through before she found true love. 

What about you? Have you tried growing plants in an indoor container like a terrarium? What about using one for other land creatures like reptiles? I'd love to have you share your experience one way or the other. 


Anita Mae Draper's historical romances are woven under the western skies of the Saskatchewan prairie where her love of research and genealogy yield fascinating truths that layer her stories with rich historical details. Her Christian faith is reflected in her stories of forgiveness and redemption as her characters struggle to find their way to that place we call home. Anita loves to correspond with her readers through any of the social media links found at

Readers can enrich their reading experience by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards for a visual idea of her stories at


  1. Thank you for this very interesting post, Anita Mae. I have never had a terrarium but I find it amazing how plants can grow and survive in one. Ward was certainly on to something!

    1. You're welcome, Melanie. I agree with you on both counts. Thank you for visiting today. :)

  2. I've always loved terrariums. I had one when I was young, but I don't remember now what happened to it. It's fun to see these old ones. I imagine they brought much joy to their owners.

    1. I'm sure they did, Vickie. Back in the 1970s they were all the rage, which is when I bought mine, and it seems like they're coming back to the decorator stores. Thanks for popping in. :)

  3. I've not had a ton of luck with terrariums but it's something I might like to try again, especially with my success in having two orchids rebloom and not killing them!!!

    1. Wow! You're two orchids up on me then, Connie. The most exotic plant I've owned was the lipstick plant. And a mimosa. At the moment I only have an aloe vera and a Christmas cactus. Must go shopping. Thanks for visiting today. :)

  4. What an interesting post. I've never tried or even had a terrarium, but I've seen some beautiful ones. I've grown things in pots, but most of the time they give up the ghost after a while. My thumb is brown not green.

    1. Martha, I used to say that until I discovered a different type of gardening. Some people aren't good with inside plants, but are great outside. Or aren't good with garden beds, but grow gorgeous plants in baskets. I tend to kill the easiest plants, like African violets, but are good with others. At least with a brown thumb you're getting your hands dirty.

      Never stop looking for the plant that God designed just for you.

  5. What an interesting history! I knew nothing of any of this and really enjoyed learning about it ... as for my own plant-growing ... I managed to keep a giant fern alive this winter, but tending a terrarium would not be something I'd ever attempt. Again, thank you for this lesson on botanical history.

  6. Yes, very interesting ! I still shall stick to outdoor gardening & bring touchy plants into the shed or indoors for winter.

  7. Really fascinating stuff! Those fussy Victorians! I remember the conservatory in the movie The Time Machine with wall to wall things in bottles, butterflies in shadow boxes on the wall etc! People decorated every inch of wall space! No minimalist stuff then!