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2:45 AM Wed, Jan. 16th

Plants can thrive in Wardian cases

In 1827, a London physician with an interest in caterpillar metamorphosis built small glass boxes to contain the cocoons and emerging butterflies.

Peering into the “dirt” in one of the boxes one day, the physician, Dr. Nathanial Ward, noticed that a fern spore had germinated.

Ward became so enthralled with the way the developing plant was able to flourish without care in the box that he changed his course of study.

In 1836, he published a book titled, “On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.”

Wardian cases, as the glass boxes came to be called, became all the rage in Victorian England. Plants were protected in the cases from the chilling drafts, dry air and gas fumes of Victorian homes.

Plant explorers also found a use for Wardian cases. Live plants from exotic lands could be transported by ship to England, protected in the cases from salt air and changing climatic conditions. Today, we usually call such plant cases “terrariums.”


Plants in Wardian cases need little care. The small amount of water that the leaves give off in their humid environment condenses on the glass and dribbles back to the roots.

Oxygen released each day from photosynthesis is used each night in respiration. Ward reputedly grew ferns in one of his cases for 15 years without any care at all.

A Wardian case full of lush, green plants is a year-round oasis, even if today’s homes are less drafty and the air is cleaner than in the homes of Victorian England.

Aside from decorative value and ease of care, a terrarium provides the humid, boggy environment essential to the cultivation of certain plants.


Many kinds of containers can serve as Wardian cases. I have made my own, using glass and silicone glue. Other possibilities include 5-gallon water jars, 1-gallon canning jars, aquariums and oversize brandy snifters.

Large plastic soda bottles are easily converted into small terrariums. Once you have settled on a container, wash it thoroughly. You won’t get another chance once it is planted.

To plant, start with a layer of charcoal, which will keep the soil “sweet.” Next, add potting soil, the amount depending on the container, the plants and the type of “landscaping” you want. Choose plants that thrive in humidity.