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 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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
from Porches & Sunrooms by Jessica Elin Hirshman
Lady Jane designs some beautiful miniature glass houses! They are very expensive, but aren't they amazing? Not Wardian cases, but great inspiration!
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!
workers repairing the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco
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!
from Formal Victorian by Ellen M. Plante
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: