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What is a Wardian Case?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 16, 2024
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A Wardian case is a glass-enclosed box originally used in the transport of live plants over long distances. Created by and named for English botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, they became extremely popular outside the scientific community during the Victorian era. Most were glass-walled boxes edged with decorative iron scrollwork and could be constructed to sit on a desk or on a floor stand. These early terrariums were largely self-sustaining environments for a variety of plants.

Like many inventions, the original purpose of the case design was meant for a somewhat different purpose. Ward wanted to watch every stage of the transformation of larvae into insects and created a glass-walled container to do so. When plants started to grow in the container with insects, he began to experiment with the idea of growing plants in a sealed, self-sufficient container.

He discovered that the evaporation and condensation that occurred inside a sealed glass container kept the moisture levels at a consistent level. Temperature also remained relatively consistent, and he found that opening the case or sealing it improperly would in many instances cause the plants to die. This sealed environment was ideal for non-native and exotic plants that might otherwise not have survived in the cool English climate.

The consistent environment created by a Wardian case gave botanists new opportunities. Trips were long, and when brought back to Britain and the continent from other areas, plants were subjected to harsh conditions that they typically could not weather. One of the only options was to bring back seeds and try to grow the plants at home. A Wardian case allowed botanists to bring back live, adult plants carried securely in their own environment.

Some plants are more likely to thrive in a Wardian case than others. Grasses, ferns, ficus, and plants that like moist, humid conditions tend to do well in glass enclosures. Terrariums can be almost any shape, but a typical Wardian case is a square or rectangular glass box with a removable top that makes it easy to add and remove plants. Many themed cases are available.

Many of the original Wardian cases were highly decorative, with elaborate ironwork. Cases are still available with a distinctive, Victorian appearance. Small ones can be found or made to sit on a table, while larger types have decorative floor stands. They can be made in almost any size, and with protection from the elements and the use of rustproof materials, some can sit outside.

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