A Short History of Terrariums – The Happy Botanical Accident

Terrariums have graced our windowsills for many years.

As stunning little slices of nature in the home, it’s no wonder that they’ve influenced the world as we know it so profoundly.

Responsible for the Victorian “Fern Fever” (yes, I’m serious), along with the global spread of plants, tea and… colonialism? Honestly, these glass horticultural marvels have quite the history!

Come with me on a journey of science, success, failure and plants, to see the exciting history of terrariums as it unfolded.

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The Wardian Case Terrarium – How it All Began

As with many scientific advances, the terrariums came about by an accidental discovery.

Back in 1829, amateur naturalist Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was performing an experiment observing a moth chrysalis in a sealed glass bottle. Though the moth never emerged, he did notice a fern spore germinating in the soil (which is arguably better, right?).

Thankfully, our dear friend Dr Ward immediately recognized the importance of his discovery.

Seeing the humidity of the atmosphere inside the container and the condensation on the glass dripping down to water the soil, he realized he’d created his own miniature ecosystem.

In fact, “Ward took the sealed bottle and moved it to a window that would get the northern sun. The plants inside survived for three years without water.”

So, the first terrarium was born!

Ward went on to test his new thesis, growing all manner of plants under glass and developing his new horticultural device – which would later come to be known as “The Wardian Case.”

As detailed in his 1842 book, Of the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, the Wardian Case was a revolutionary tool that would change the face of horticulture forever.

And it did, this was just the beginning for our humble terrarium precursor.

The Terrarium Introduction to the World

To be fair, the ability to keep tropical plants alive in different climates was a revolution. Both for the the people, for industry, and the world at large (but more on that later).

When it came to popularity, terrariums really took off amongst the upper class crowds.

To this day, we all love to show off our prized houseplants by the window (my giant Alocasia zebrina is practically my calling card), and the Victorians were no different.

Can’t blame them really.

Except, household growing conditions were very different back then. There was an altogether more pollutive and dangerous revolution going on – the industrial revolution.

With pretty horrendous air quality, keeping those trendy new ferns alive was even more of a struggle than they are now (personally, I can’t imagine Maidenhair Ferns being even more difficult).

So, in comes the terrarium, a fashionable way to create a harmonious little atmosphere for your ferns to thrive. They’d often be placed on windowsills to show off your exotic plant wealth, and block out the smoggy London skyline.

Besides their decorative beauty, it was the fields of science and agriculture that really took notice of the Wardian Case’s potential.

Suddenly, transporting plants around the world had never been easier.

Need to send an exotic plant from Peru back to England for study? No problem. How about sending a new cultivar of tea across the British Empire for growing in India? Of course!

Wardian Cases became a tool of industry and science; driving wealth, prosperity and power across the globe.

Now, boosting the power of the Empire was arguably a negative thing…. but we do have terrariums to thank for the many exotic specimens housed in the world’s botanical gardens. Including Kew Gardens, the largest collection of plants in the world.

The Modern Terrarium

Though they’re no longer used to transport plants, the modern terrarium still functions in exactly the same way.

They’ve mostly just acquired more angles and elaborate designs, but who’s complaining?

I guess there’s the various types of open terraria (e.g. succulent bowls or dish gardens), but I think they’re more of a decorative trend than a true successor to the Wardian Case.

Thankfully, closed terraria are more popular than ever, and the culture around them continues to mature and flourish (hopefully helped by this website to some extent!)

๐Ÿ‘‰ For more info, check out my guides on Types of Terrarium or What is a Terrarium?

That’s All Folks

There you have it, a rather speedy run through the grand history of terrariums.

What are you waiting for, go build your own!

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