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The Wardian Case – preventing damage to plants by “monkeys and parakeets”

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Detail from ‘A Primrose from England’ by Edward Hopley, 1855

This painting, A Primrose from England, by the artist Edward Hopley was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1855. While Hopley was primarily exploring the emotions associated with the emigrant experience of people moving from the UK to Australia, his painting also shows an important, actual event – the successful transportation of a primrose plant from the home country to Melbourne, much to the excitement and wonder of the colonial populace. The plant was shipped to the other side of the world in a Wardian case.

In these unprecedented times, we’ve all probably learnt something about the sophistication of the supply chains that keep our shops full of goods as, along with others, the horticultural industry suffered back in the spring. In the early 19th century, when we didn’t have the benefit of sophisticated delivery systems, the transportation of plants back to the UK from far-flung corners of the British Empire was a huge problem. As plant-hunter Robert Fortune noted in 1819 for example, “one plant only in a thousand survived the voyage from China to England”.

The failure of consignments of plants could have economic consequences at a time when Britain, and other colonial empires, were moving plants from one area of the globe to the other. (It was Fortune, for example, who was responsible for smuggling samples of tea plants from China to create profitable plantations in India.) The requirement for successfully moving economically important, as well as ornamental, plants only accelerated the search for well-designed shipping containers for plants. One book, John Ellis’ Directions for Bringing over Seeds and Plants, from the East-Indies and other distant countries in a State of Vegetation examined the problems in depth in 1770.

One chapter even provided Directions for Captains of Ships, Sea Surgeons and other curious Persons, who collect Seeds and Plants in distant Countries in What Manner to preserve them fit for Vegetation – such ‘curious Persons’ often being, at the time, the main conduit for the collection and transportation of new plants.

In 1789, one sea captain commissioned to undertake such a task was the infamous Captain Bligh of HMAV Bounty*, who was ordered to transport 1,000 potted breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the British colonies in the West Indies. Under the direction of Sir Joseph Banks (who shared the view of the Caribbean plantation owners that breadfruit might grow well there and provide cheap food for the slaves), the Captain’s 'great' cabin was converted into a greenhouse with glazed windows, skylights, and even a drainage system to prevent the waste of fresh water.

1969 stamp depicting breadfruit plants and the pots designed to transport them

Contributing factors to the subsequent famous mutiny are thought to have been severe overcrowding for both officers and men due to the arrangements for the plants - as well as arguments over wasting fresh water on them in a period of shortage.

Artocarpus altilis - the Breadfruit plant, from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1828

Other authors and horticulturists searched for answers to the problems of transporting plants around the globe. One such was John Lindley, Professor of Botany and an influential figure in the Horticultural Society of London (later the RHS) whose paper, Instructions for Packing living Plants in Foreign Countries especially within the Tropics, and Directions for Their Treatment during the Voyage to Europe, was read to the Horticultural Society of London in 1822. As he pointed out, much mischief was occasionally done to plant collections in transit across oceans by “monkeys and parakeets on board vessels…”. Such exotic damage was in addition, of course, to that more normally caused by salt water, bad weather, rats, or the loss of shipments due to skirmishes at sea during times of war (or plants being thrown over the side by mutinous crews of course!).

Included in Lindley's paper (published in The Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London) was the image on the left showing a sketch of the box used by Sir Robert Farquhar to transport plants from Mauritius to London in 1824. (The box looking similar to the later Wardian case.)

Fortunately, the invention of the Wardian case in around 1829 revolutionised the transportation of plants across the world. The cases enabled plant-hunters and collectors to send their precious cargoes back to the UK in good condition, whilst preventing all kinds of damage – and not just that from those pesky monkeys and parakeets!

'A Wardian Case dating from around 1870', on show at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston

The case, an early type of terrarium, was invented by Dr Nathanial Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), a London physician with a passion for botany. He accidentally discovered that a sealed glass container, producing condensed moisture, allowed plants inside to grow and thrive for extended periods. Ward tested the glazed cases in 1833 when he shipped two to Sydney, Australia and, after the long voyage of several months, they arrived in good condition. A few years later in 1841, Joseph Hooker became one of the first plant-hunters to use the new cases shipping live plants from New Zealand, whilst on his second visit to China, Robert Fortune sent 20,000 plants “in safety and in high health” from China to India.

Ward duly published details of his experiment, following it up in 1842 with a book, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. The horticultural press also reported on the new invention - John Loudon’s Gardeners’ Magazine published Ward’s article, On growing Ferns and other Plants in Glass Cases in the midst of the Smoke of London, in 1834. This domestic use of the cases had the benefit of allowing people in urban areas to have healthy plants growing in their homes. As one Gardeners’ Chronicle reader wrote in December 1842 “those who live in the country, at a distance from the smoke and dust of large towns, have no idea of the pleasure derived from cultivating plants in a Ward’s case which is placed upon a table beside the window of a sitting room”.

'Wardian Cases' from Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste

Ornamental versions of the cases for the home became hugely popular, and books such as Shirley Hibberd’s 1848, Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, recommended them for protecting plants from the “surrounding dust and the fumes of factories”, writing that, to preserve "a gaiety... in the midst of darkness and smoke... there is but one method and that is by the culture of [them] in Wardian Cases."

Advertisements for such ornamental Wardian cases duly appeared - The Gardeners’ Chronicle in September 1842 carrying one for “Wardian cases of Ferns, or Ward’s portable Greenhouses, of various sizes and prices with the Plants from 7s 6d to 2 and 5 guineas.”

'A rectangular terrarium, inspired by the Wardian case, sits near a New York apartment window.' Photograph by J T Beals, c.1920 Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

From the 1860's into the 20th century, plants in Ward’s cases successfully travelled all over the world. Lindley himself wrote to Ward in 1842 in praise of the cases: “As far as our experience goes, your plant-cases are by far the best that have ever been contrived. We uniformly find the plants in them, even from India, in excellent order…”.

'Unpacking a Wardian case at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew'. Image from RBG, Kew

From the photographs below, it can be seen how the Wardian case was adapted to transport different sizes and shapes of plants.

'Specially crafted Wardian cases made by local Indonesian workers were used to send plants from the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens, Java, in 1904.’ Image from National Museum Van Wereldculturen

Below: ‘Wardian cases, full of cycads from Australia, arrive at the Missouri Botanic Gardens (in the US) after a long journey via London and New York, c.1920.’ Image from Missouri Botanic Gardens

Below: ‘Wardian case of orchids received by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from Hong Kong.’ Image from RBG, Kew

Inevitably, however, technology moved on. By the 1920's, the use of the case was on the wane and, as bio-security became more generally understood, it was apparent they could easily spread pests and diseases globally. And by the 1940's, their use had been largely phased out as plants were transported by air, rail, or road.

The Wardian case was without doubt a huge success although its impact, according to one author, has been largely underestimated. Luke Keogh, writing in the journal of the Arnold Arboretum in 2017**, wrote that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the use of the case had “facilitated a major plant migration across the globe”. He estimates that in just 15 years William Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (from 1841-1865), imported more plants into Britain than in the entire previous century.

Modern terrariums

To bring this story up-to-date, although Wardian cases are no longer used, terrariums have made something of a come-back over the last few years with the huge surge in the popularity of houseplants. And as one houseplant proponent, James Wong (ethnobotanist, tv presenter and garden designer), says "Forget the hipster bottle gardens of Instagram - follow the Victorian's advice and your terrarium will thrive."

* HM Armed Vessel Bounty, usually incorrectly referred to as HMS Bounty.

**Luke Keogh, The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved the Plant Kingdom,

from Arnoldia, 2017

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