Gardeners' Dirt: Terrariums - life under glass
By Beth Ellis - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Jan. 19, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 18, 2012 at 7:19 p.m.
Editor's note: This is Part I of a two-part series on growing plants under glass or in terrariums. Learn how to make your own in next week's article.
Do you love the look of greenery in your home, but have difficulty keeping houseplants alive and looking good?
Have you even begun to consider artificial foliage as a viable fall-back plan to get "the green look" in your home?
If so, then fear not.
Despite whatever brown thumb issues you may suffer, there is a way to maintain healthy plants with minimal care on your part and without resorting to the use of fakes.
The solution is to grow plants under glass, in what Victorians called Wardian cases. These days, such cases are commonly known as terrariums.
Today's article provides some interesting information on the history of terrariums, while next week's article will show you how to make your very own.
The terrarium concept
Wardian cases were invented in 1829 by Englishman Nathaniel Ward.
A doctor by training, Ward worked in London during the years the city suffered most from "pea-soup" fog.
Turns out the famous London fog originated not from natural causes, but rather from huge amounts of pollution produced during the early days of the industrial revolution.
Ward suspected there was an environmental problem because of his lack of success in growing ferns in his backyard. One day, the good doctor, who was apparently interested in insects as well as plants and people, put a Sphinx moth cocoon into a sealed jar together with some soil.
As he waited for the moth to pupate, he noticed ferns and grass had not only started to grow - but actually thrive - in the uncontaminated atmosphere of the jar.
Ward realized that when given clean air and water along with appropriate light, plants sealed inside glass enclosures could survive. This discovery caused Ward to realize that the heavy London fog was the culprit responsible for sickening his outside plants.
His discovery could not have been more timely, given the burgeoning Victorian interest in exotic plants.
Plants on shipboard
Ward quickly realized the benefits of enclosed glass containers when transporting live plants from one continent to another.
Previously, plant fragility compounded by harsh shipboard conditions led to very low survival rates on sea voyages - to the unending frustration of early botanists.
In the 1830s, Ward demonstrated the commercial benefits of his cases, by successfully shipping live plants back and forth between Australia and England.
Given that such voyages took at least six months to complete one way, his discovery had a profound effect on British horticultural interests.
In 1842, Ward documented his success in a book entitled "On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases."
Publication allowed his work to reach a wide audience, and in 1843, plant hunter Robert Fortune used Wardian cases to successfully ship roses and other plants from China to England and America.
Soon after, Fortune used Wardian cases to smuggle thousands of Chinese tea plants to British India, thus allowing the establishment of the Indian tea industry.
Other botanists followed suit with other plant species, with great benefit to their respective countries.
Wardian cases, Victorian homeowners
After the publication of the second edition of Ward's book in 1852, Wardian cases became highly fashionable ornaments in the homes of upper-tier Victorians.
The cases provided the perfect environment for the highly-prized ferns, orchids and other plants collected by Victorians living in both the old world and the new.
Well-to-do Victorians soon expanded on the theme.
Large window cases were attached to the exteriors of window openings, and then decorated for viewing from inside the home.
Wardian cases also likely contributed to the popularity of Victorian sunrooms.
Founded on the greenhouse concept, sunrooms were essentially giant-sized Wardian cases. They provided not only a dedicated room for houseplants, but also a serene space for homeowners to enjoy nature but be protected from inclement weather.
The popularity of Wardian cases continued for the rest of the Victorian Era, but declined at the onset of the 20th century.
For one thing, glass had become widely available, so Wardian cases became less emblematic of status.
For another, the arts and crafts movement refocused social attitudes toward appreciating the natural world itself, rather than forcing nature to bow to the rigid dictates demanded by the Victorians.
Thus, the structured environment of Wardian cases became passe.
Sometime during the 20th century, Wardian cases began to be called terrariums. In the 1970s, terrariums saw a resurgence of popularity, and then again after the turn of the 21st century.
Today, as long as it suits the needs of the plants contained inside, terrariums can be found in just about any shape and size.
Make your own
Next week, the second article will discuss how to make your own terrarium.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at victoriaadvocate.com.