Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wardian cases

London physician Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868) had a passion for plants, which may have been inspired on a trip to Jamaica at the age of 13. His personal herbarium numbered more than 25,000 species. Unfortunately, his ferns - at the mercy of the coal smoke and sulfur in the polluted city air - were flagging, but that turned out to be a happy accident. Dr. Ward also happened to be cultivating moth cocoons in covered jars, and noticed that the fern spores they contained were germinating. He concluded that they were benefiting from the controlled environment and commissioned a carpenter to build a closely-fitted glazed case. After watching his ferns thrive within it, he wrote a book about his successful experiment and sparked a quiet revolution with his Wardian cases:

  • They allowed British gardeners to exchange native species with gardeners as far away as Australia and New Zealand
  • They made it possible to return from sea voyages with living specimens of exotic plants
  • They enabled Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880) to smuggle 20,000 tea plants out of China to start tea plantations in India
  • They made it possible for British gardeners to ship rubber tree seedlings to Indonesia to start rubber plantations
  • They fueled the Victorian fad for growing ferns and orchids
The glass of the Wardian cases gave access to the sunlight and the condensation kept them watered, while they were protected from smog, sea spray and salt air, and dry indoor conditions.
I didn't know about Wardian cases - better-known today as terrariums - until I saw them offered on-line at Paxton Gate. The proprietor of the San Francisco store e-mailed me last week to note that we have a mutual friend, the same surname, and many of the same proclivities. If you find yourself in need of a Wardian case or any of his other offerings, Mr. Quigley is extending a 10% discount to us - just use the code "QC." I am in the market for an elephant eye, among other things...

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