Sir Hooker and the Terrariums Early Uses


Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was a notable botanist and explorer in the 19th century. He was also the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a close friend of Charles Darwin. Through his work in botany he developed a correspondence with Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, the inventor of the terrarium or Wardian Case, who we discussed in our previous blog. Sir Hooker would take Ward's new invention on his expeditions across the globe in order to collect new and exotic plants for the Royal Society's collection.[1]


Previous to the terrarium, seeds would be covered in beeswax and placed in jars of honey, or in silk lined tins. This method was unfortunately ineffectual as salt air and pests would lead to disease and desiccation. [2] 

The terrariums could be kept on deck, protected from the salt air and rodents, but still able to provide moisture to the plants through the terrariums condensation cycle.

On Joseph Hooker's first expedition to Antarctica, from 1939-1843, he gathered live specimens in New Zealand to return to the Kew Gardens. The following extract is from a letter sent by Hooker from the Bay of Islands, New Zealand in 1841.[1]


"This morning however I sent on board the Exporter our large Wards case upwards of 4 foot long full of Ferns & plants for Kew Gardens. Among them you will find the Corokia buddleioides, several Alseuosmia, Laurus Tawa & Tarairi. I filled the bottom of the box with billets of wood, covered them with Sandy soil & then put in the claey[sic] soil in which all these plants grow with some vegetable mould watered them until the water ran freely from the plug hole, let it drain covered it up & put on the covers"


Sir Hooker would spend his life exploring India, The Himalayas, Morocco, Palestine, and the Western United States. The terrarium became an invaluable tool in the science of botany and would be used to collect thousands of plant varieties from around the globe. 


[1]  Huxley, Leonard 1918. Life and letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM GCSI. London, Murray.

[2] McCook, Stuart. (2016). 'Squares of Tropic Summer': The Wardian Case, Victorian Horticulture, and the Logistics of Global Plant Transfers, 1770-1910. 


Next time: We will discuss the commercial uses of the terrarium in the tea and rubber industries of the 19th Century. 

Terrarium History and Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward Lithograph by R.J. Lane

Terrariums and Dr. Ward

The history of the modern terrarium began with Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in 1829 quite by accident. Ward was experimenting with a moth chrysalis in a closed container when he noticed a sprouting seed spore. He observed that during the day moisture would condense on the sides of the container, in the evening that moisture would run down into the soil maintaining a constant humidity.[1] 

 Ward continued the experiment for 4 years during which time he observed germination of the seed spores. Eventually the seal to his container rusted and the original spores died from exposure to bad air. At the time of his discovery London, Ward's hometown, was heavily polluted from coal smoke and sulphuric acid.[2]

Victorian Wardian Case

Spurred on by this curious discovery Ward decided to design and have built a glass and wood case that would be the first terrarium, or for his purposes The Wardian Case. With this new case Ward was successfully able to plant and grow a selection of ferns which thrived in the closed container. 

English botanist and nurserymen had been collecting new plants from around the world since the end of the 16th Century, a tricky business as long sea voyages often killed the plant specimens. The Wardian case helped to revolutionize the transport of commercially important plants; notably rubber trees from brazil, exotic orchids, and tea plants.

Dr. Ward eventually published in 1842, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. He was a founding member of the Royal Botanic Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Microscopical Society, and a fellow of the Royal Society. 

Wardian Case


[1]  "The Fever Trail" - Mark Honigsbaum (MacMillan 2001)

[2]  "Exotische Pflanzen - Matrosen sind keine Gärtner". 


Next time: We will take a deeper delve into the early uses of terrariums, and discuss Sir Hooker, an expeditionary explorer and contemporary of Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward.