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.