A Brief History of the Wardian Case

The original Wardian Case was a hermetically sealed, glazed wooden case used for the safe transport of plants during long sea voyages.

Dr N B Ward

Very little is known about the life of Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791 – 1868),

Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward taken in 1866.

the inventor of and after whom the Wardian Case is named.  Living and working in the docklands of East London as a general practitioner, Dr Ward was, as were so many professional gentlemen of that time a very keen amateur naturalist but as his attempts to cultivate ferns in the suffocating atmosphere prevalent in London, the famous or rather infamous “pea souper” smog, he turned his attention to entomology.  It was whilst studying a Hawk Moth chrysalis in 1829 that he made the discovery that revolutionised botany and horticulture.

 

A Brief History of Wardian Cases

Dr Ward had placed the chrysalis on some leaf mould inside a glass jar and sealed the lid. A few days before the moth was due to emerge, he noticed two seedlings growing, a grass and a fern. Normally such fragile plants would have succumbed to the atmospheric pollution but Dr Ward observed that inside their protective glass shell they thrived and continued to grow.  He also noticed that the leaf mould remained damp and surmised, correctly, that the moisture was evaporating in the increased heat during the day and then condensing and running back down the sides of the glass during the night.  This situation continued for four years until the lid of the jar rusted through whilst he was away and the plants died.

Encouraged by the success of this experiment, Dr Ward, who was a friend of Sir William Hooker, the director of The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, decided to take his experiment to the next level.  In 1833, he had two strong wood-framed, glazed cases made, filled them with loam and plants and sealed them.  These were placed on the open deck of a ship and sent to Australia.  After six months at sea, the plants arrived safely.  In 1835, by his instruction the cases were then refilled with plants and as before installed on the deck of a ship for the return journey.  Following eight months of travel, during which the temperature fluctuated a great deal, the cases arrived back in London and into the eager hands of Dr Ward.  The experiment was concluded a great success and soon it was the standard method of transporting plants around the globe.  Dr Ward wrote an account of his experiment in the pamphlet “The Growth of Plants without open Exposure to Air” and this was followed in 1842 by a book” On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases”.   Transcripts of these can be found below.

Despite the importance of Dr Ward’s discovery, he made very little money from it himself.  He continued to work as a GP before retiring to Clapham Rise where he continued his interest in growing ferns.  When Dr Ward died in 1868, his personal collection is believed to have amounted to 25,000 specimens.

 

 

Aside from the use of these cases as a method of transporting commercially or botanically valuable plants they soon came to be adopted all over Victorian England in a more ornamental form as a way of growing exotic ferns or orchids at home.  Some wonderful examples are illustrated in Shirley Hibbard’s book “Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste” (1856).  Now these are usually referred to as terrarium and in the modern centrally heated home with its overly dry atmosphere are a way of providing a more humid microclimate for growing plants.

The Growth of Plants without open Exposure to Air

On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases

Scans of the originals of these two books are available on the internet if you search for them.

A little more about Dr Ward can be found on Wikipedia

Contents of our demonstration Wardian Case.
Our demonstration wardian case.
Our Wardian Cases

For those who are a little more ambitious in their choice of houseplant we are able to supply a rather more sophisticated version of Dr Ward’s case. With integral heating and lighting controlled by a digital timer.  This allows for the arrangement of a day/night temperature difference reproducing conditions the plants would experience in nature; the same timer controls the lighting.  Cases can be supplied with single or double glazing, although there is a cost consideration involved double glazing does give a more stable internal environment and can reduce the cost of heating. No matter what your particular interest, whether humidity loving orchids or the more arid tolerant cacti and succulents, we can produce a case to suit the plants you wish to cultivate and the situation you wish to keep it whether home or office.

 

The wardian case shown is our demonstration unit and as such has been designed with ease of transportation in mind.  The main difference is that this unit has a shallower tray and top than those we usually supply. Single glazed with four 8-watt LED lights, heating is through a 150-watt cable underneath the tray controlled by a dual temperature controller.  The unit measures approximately 131cm high by 92cm wide by 61cm deep (511/2 * 36 * 24 inches).  Although Dr. Wards completely sealed units can have an advantage regarding plant growth, it can lead to excessive amounts of condensation forming inside the glass obscuring visibility.  To resolve this issue our cases come with adjustable ventilation, top and bottom, to allow a compromise to be reached.

The above is just one example, we do not produce a set range or design, if you commission a wardian case from us you will receive a bespoke unit to suit your own requirements.  How about one incorporating a fish tank in the bottom?