Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Search of The Perfect Wardian Case

Old Wardian Case Drawing
Back in the 1970's, we had something called terrariums. They were extremely popular, and consisted of a fish bowl or lidded jar into which people placed miniature plant specimens, rocks, mosses and other natural items to create a small, decorative eco-system. But did you know that in the early 1800's, something very similar was invented by a doctor named Nathanial Ward?


The Wardian cases, as they were called, allowed the Victorians to collect and keep plant specimens away from the polluted air of London. The cases were also used to transport rare plants from one locale to another. The plants thrived in their sealed, miniature environments and could withstand long journeys. And we all know the Victorians were crazy for plants! Now they could grow exotic specimens shipped from all over the world.

an original Wardian Case
an original Wardian case specimen

I've been fascinated with these cases for quite some time. Original Wardian cases are quite rare. Maybe it's my fascination with Victorian conservatories and greenhouses that draws me to the Wardian case, for the ones I like best are those that look like miniature versions of conservatories.

Modern day Wardian Case

Wardian Case-modern version

Several years ago, I bought a glass-and-metal version at Frank's Nursery & Crafts. In it, I placed some potted plants, surrounded the pots with moss, and decorated it with tiny mushroom birds and other whimsical miniatures.

My Wardian Case
my Wardian case

The small African violet that grows inside blooms almost constantly. My other African violets bloom only sporadically, even though they get the same amount of sunlight. I think the enclosed environment keeps the humidity higher, which is more like the African violet's natural habitat. My other African violets have to deal with the drier air of our forced-air heating during our long winter months.

African Violet

Terrariums and some Wardian cases are meant to be lined with a soil mixture and the plants placed directly into the soil. They are sealed fairly tightly, but should have some amount of air so as to keep the plants from rotting. My Wardian case is not sealed too tightly, so there is still air circulation and evaporation.

A glass bell cloche placed over a plant acts in the same way, creating a humid environment that benefits many plants, like ferns. Aren't these covered apothecary jars cute?

Covered Plant Jars

I like decorating my Wardian case with little birds and pretend nests, and other bits of nature, like pine cones. The Victorians loved displaying things under glass. Hair wreaths, taxidermy, wax flowers, watches and dead butterflies are just some that come to mind.

Mushroom Birds

I would love to have a much larger and more intricate Wardian case, although there are not many windows I could place it near in our house!

Inside View

A few years back, I saw a large, beautiful Gothic-style Wardian case for sale in a store. It was too expensive for me (I think about $600.00) but I couldn't get it out of my mind. I thought that some day, I would have enough money to buy such an extravagance. What would my perfect Wardian case look like?

Here are some of my inspirations:

Real conservatories! I love all the glass and the cross-pieces that hold the glass together. I also love the Victorian wire plant stands used back then.


Beautiful Conservatory
from Porches & Sunrooms by Jessica Elin Hirshman

Flower Pot Stands

Lady Jane designs some beautiful miniature glass houses! They are very expensive, but aren't they amazing? Not Wardian cases, but great inspiration!

Double Conservatory Roombox

Years ago, I was able to visit the Golden Gate Park Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. It is the most beautiful conservatory I've ever seen! I felt like the Victorians surely did when they viewed the famous Crystal Palace for the first time!

Golden Gate Park Conservatory
workers repairing the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco

Golden Gate Park Conservatory 2

I'm also drawn to the wires of a birdhouse such as this beauty! Maybe that's why I use them in my garden. The size and shape would make a very impressive Wardian case!

Bird Cage Inspiration
from Formal Victorian by Ellen M. Plante

Mushroom Birds inside my Wardian Case

I'm beginning to think that maybe I can make my own Wardian case for a lot less money. I would design it to look like the Crystal Palace, or a similar glass building or conservatory. I would make the frame and cross-beams out of wood, then have window glass cut to fit the interior. I would line the bottom with some sort of tin tray, and build an elegant stand for it to rest on. I could even add Eastlake details!

I think I'll place it on my to-do list, and plan on constructing it whenever I get around to building the bookshelves for my library.

Some great links:

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Blogger The Blackwood Cottage said...

Oh my gosh, I love this post. I did not know all of that! I love getting a history, gardening, and design education all in one!! I am going to use some of your ideas on this one, simply a great post!

June 28, 2010 at 9:55 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Thank you, Machelle! I've been away from blogging for a couple weeks, when this idea came into my head and I just had to get it out! :-)


June 28, 2010 at 9:58 PM  
Blogger Rose ~Victorian Rose ~ said...

Pam...I have been kinda out of it with the knee/leg problem I have had...
I get out...but I "pay" for it later for sure. But it seems that I have not seen these posts of yours come thru where the blogs I follow show up. ( Will have to check it more faithfully too I'm sure)

But NONE the less, I ran across a really CUTE terrarium at a Decor shop near us..the next time I am in there, (and if the price is right )
... see if I can't actually grow something in it... Not much at green thumbing tho.
Love YOUR article and pic's about them however.


June 29, 2010 at 11:20 PM  
Blogger The Dusty Victorian said...

Hi Pam,
Your post makes me want to try my hand at keeping a miniature conservatory. Lovely!

June 30, 2010 at 6:04 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Rose-

Sorry to hear your leg pains. I hope that eases up for you soon. I know you like to get out and keep busy!

I've been busy lately and haven't posted as often as I'd like. Let me know if you get that terrarium, and if it works out for you.


June 30, 2010 at 9:35 PM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Anyes,

I've never had much luck with houseplants, but keeping them under glass really seems to help. And they look prettier in there, too! :-)


June 30, 2010 at 9:37 PM  
Blogger The Sweetbrier Cottage said...

Your post are always so inspirational! My plan was to create a small garden patio outside my guest room but I think I, and perhaps guests, might enjoy a small conservatory/greenhouse instead. I was not aware of the Wardian cases so now I will keep a lookout for them. Beautiful post!

July 1, 2010 at 8:41 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Sweetbrier-

Depending on what kind of winters you have, your guests would be able to enjoy a conservatory year 'round. I would love to have a conservatory in my house! :-)


July 1, 2010 at 9:30 AM  
Blogger The Rustic Victorian said...

OH Pam,
What an amazingly wonderful post. I do think if your going to dream, dream BIG, and a conservatory is a wonderful dream project. I like your Wardian case very much. Like a miniture world. Thank you for all the information, and ispiration.

July 5, 2010 at 6:01 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Marcie-

It is like a miniature world, isn't it? It would be fun to shrink down and climb inside. But, yes, it would be amazing if I could have a full -size conservatory! :-)


July 6, 2010 at 7:13 AM  
Anonymous Val said...

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to live across the bay from S.F. Oh how I loved every glimpse of this conservatory! I would love to stumble upon an original case at an estate sale but they are so very rare. Great post!

July 9, 2010 at 10:05 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Val-

You are so lucky to have lived there! What a great area of the country. I, too, would love to come across an antique Wardian case, but I've only seen modern versions. Thank you for the nice comments!


July 9, 2010 at 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love that Victorian bird cage. Where could I find that?

September 9, 2010 at 12:22 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

The bird cage is probably an antique. The closest I could find for you can be found here:

And here's a place that sells antique bird cages:

September 9, 2010 at 7:09 AM  
Blogger Melanie {The Tiny Tudor} said...

Hello- I just stumbled onto your blog when looking for victorian bird cages. I just adore this post- such pretty inspiration and the information is great. I really enjoyed reading and would love to put together a terranium one day. I'm following along now and looking forward to reading more!

February 2, 2011 at 1:33 PM  
Blogger Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Melanie-

Welcome to Eastlake Victorian! I'm glad you found this post interesting. I'll pop on over to your blog to check it out, too. :-)


February 3, 2011 at 8:13 AM  
Blogger robotguy said...

I have also fallen in love with wardian cases, and decided to have a go at making one of my own since they are so expensive. I watched a few youtube videos on stained glass techniques and picked up the supplies at a local shop. My first attempt is simplistic and a bit messy, but wasn't really that tough to put together:

I am hoping that by my 3rd or 4th I can builld one that looks like a small conservatory. If you like making things, you should definitely give it a try.

January 22, 2012 at 1:09 AM  
Blogger Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Thanks, Robotguy! The Wardian case you built looks like it would do just fine. Of course, one that looked like a conservatory would be awesome. Let me know if you try it, how it turns out. Of course, I haven't gotten around to trying to build my own yet. :-)


January 28, 2012 at 5:20 PM  
Blogger robotguy said...

Attempt #2 turned out almost as well I could hope for:

Designed with all straight cuts so I managed to do it without a grinder. All in all I think I spent $50 on tools and supplies, and still have plenty left over to make another. It took about 5 hours to design and 20 hours total to construct. Time consuming but not really difficult if you don't mind bumpy solder joints. You should give it a try!

I posted a bit more construction detail in the steampunk forum if you're interested:,34607.0.html

February 10, 2012 at 11:39 PM  
Blogger Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...


Wow, that's beautiful! Great job! The bumpy joints give it a nice look, I think. I like a more handmade look. It would look great as a stand alone piece, and awesome with some miniature plants inside. I really like your dome. I can see how steampunk lovers would love these!

Keep me posted on further attempts. This has been one of my most popular posts. Many people are interested in these wardian cases!


February 21, 2012 at 7:01 AM  
Blogger Lady Spring said...

Hello! Wow your wardian case is beautiful and big! The African Violet is thriving beautiful. I love your mini birds as well.<3

May 17, 2012 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Lady Spring said...

Hello I used one of your photos here...thank you :)

May 29, 2012 at 3:39 PM  

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