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Wardian Cases Shifted Natural History

Wardian Cases were simple carrying cases, but they shifted human history. Constructed from wooden frames with airtight glass panels, these small movable greenhouses provided vehicles in which plants could travel safely between continents.  While the technology was familiar, its application was groundbreaking.

From their first launch in 1829, Wardian Cases revolutionized commercial shipping of plants and flowers.  Giant Victoriana Water Lilies and other exotics were grown in England. Fresh fruits became available year round. China’s hold on the tea industry was broken. Quinine provided an anti-malarial drug, thereby enabling the global spread of empires. The vulcanization of rubber brought us everything from tires to early Victorian tennis shoes.


Doomed Plants Sparked The Development Of Wardian Cases

Before Wardian Cases, the trafficking of seeds and plants between continents was a tricky business. Early plant hunters often risked life and limb trekking through jungles and other inhospitable environments. But shipments often perished during long sea voyages to home base. A combination of temperature, salt air, unreliable sunlight and vermin made survival nearly impossible. Seeds also met tragic endings.

As late as 1819, it was standard practice to collect many more plants than the desired number in hopes that some would survive. According to famed nurseryman George Loddiges, only one plant in twenty survived. Gardeners frequently accompanied shipments to increase their odds. Still, the floating gardens were doomed.

Enter Dr. Ward And His Chance Discovery

 Nathanial Bagshaw Ward (1791 – 4 June 1868) was a Medical Doctor. Through much of the 1800s Medical Doctors were expected to have thorough training in plants, from which it was believed most remedies derived. As a a member of the Linnean Society, he was an avid student of natural history, evolution and taxonomy Ward had a particular passion for all things related to plants. Although an amateur horticulturist, he had a wide circle of colleagues that included Charles Darwin and George Loddiges.

It was his passion for horticulture and botany that led to the fortunate accident. Ward was disheartened when many of his plants perished. Blaming conditions of industrialization including air pollution and acid rain he turned his attentions to moths. In his book, On The Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, published 1842 he refers to a simple incident:

“I had buried the chrysalis of a sphinx in some moist mould contained in a wide-mouthed glass bottle, covered with a lid. In watching the bottle from day to day, I observed that the moisture which, during the heat of the day arose from the mould, condensed on the surface of the glass, and returned when it came: thus keeping the earth always in the same degree of humidity. About a week prior to the final change of the insect, a seedling fern and a grass made their appearance on the surface of the mould.” (p. 37)

The fern lived four years in a wide-mouthed bottled, covered with oiled silk cloth. Throughout that time it required no water. When it outgrew the bottle, Ward moved it to his large fern-house, covered with a bell-glass, and only occasionally watered. It produced fronds fifteen inches in height by seven or eight in breadth.

The developing technology of greenhouses was known among professional horticulturists. But Ward’s application to a sealed and movable case was groundbreaking. Greenhouses use solar radiation to heat their space, creating a warm environment. They generally require additional water and maintenance. Wardian Cases were sealed environments that relied on condensation and evaporation to provide a continual water supply to its inhabitants. Little or no human intervention was necessary.

Illustrating this point, the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London featured a Wardian Case in its Crystal Palace. Living inside was a plant that reportedly had survived eighteen years without being watered. Dr. Ward’s idea was widely embraced.

Australia Or Bust

Dr. Ward built two large containers from glass and wood and began to experiment. He soon won the support of George Loddiges owner of the famed Loddiges and Sons Nursery in Hackney, London. Loddiges saw tremendous commercial potential in Ward’s invention.

In 1833, they sent two Wardian Cases filled with plants to Australia. On this voyage, nineteen out of twenty plants survived instead of the usual one. The painting, A Primrose From England painted by Edward Hopley in 1855 illustrated the magic of the arrival of new blossoms from England.

The ship returned a year later, carrying the Wardian Cases filled with Australian specimens also in healthy condition.

Dr. Ward’s Boxes Fueled Fern Frenzies and Other Obsessions

George Loddiges’s hunch was correct. Wardian Cases built for transport over long journeys sparked new financial and botanical successes for nurseries across Europe. The wealthy had always lusted after exotic plants. Now their insatiable desire blossomed further with the appearance of such wonders as Giant Victoria Water Lilies, orchids, tropical ferns, exotic fruit trees and more.

The second type of Wardian case was built for use in homes with an eye to design and aesthetics. The emerging middle class had more disposable income and leisure time for hobbies. Plants became trendy, must-have items in Victorian homes. Nineteenth-century architectural styles responded with the inclusion of bay windows and other features designed specifically to grow plants.

In Chapter V of his book, Dr. Ward wrote about the possibilities of improving the condition of the poor through greater access to botanical wonders. He quotes a letter from a woman in Bristol whose prized possession was a Wardian Case:

“I think you must have much satisfaction in thinking how much pleasure you have been enabled to give in the world and how often the sorrowful have been cheered by watching the fresh vegetation near them…Many country walks, too, have been taken by those, who would not otherwise have stirred from their homes…”

Most of the plants in our home are rooted in the Victorian Era, compliments of the Wardian Case.

A Simple Box Changed The World

In The Wardian Case: How A Simple Box Moved Plants And Changed The World, author Luke Keogh writes that this was a “century-long story of how our relationship to nature changed with our ability to move plants effectively.” Through this simple device we understand “the interconnectedness of modern life and the global trade networks that shape this relationship.”

According to Keogh, from the mid-1800s “important agricultural plants such as bananas, cocoa, rubber, tea and many more were successfully moved in cases and went on to have major commercial impacts. The effects of these impacts were significant and widespread.”

While many good things came from this traffic, Keogh’s investigation is a sobering reminder of the ramifications on human history as well as the natural environment. Following are just a few.

In the late 1840s, Robert Fortune from Chelsea Physic Garden secretly gathered tea plants out of China, thus ending the country’s monopoly on tea. In 1858, Fortune smuggled Chinese tea to America.

In the 1870s Henry Wickham purchased rubber-tree seeds that were germinated in Kew Gardens then sent to Ceylon. This ended Brazil’s lock on the rubber industry.

Britain and other European countries then used the cases to establish tea, rubber and other plantations around the globe, thus spreading colonization.

Keogh writes:

“In the 1830s, when Ward was promoting his ideas, having an exotic plant sitting on your dining table was something to prize and marvel at. Over the next century the free movement of plants saw not only exotic curiosities arrive on foreign shores but also invasive species, diseases, and pathogens. Controlling such problems led to stricter quarantine and paved the path toward many of the practices of environmental management and biodiversity conservation that we have today.”

Ironically, the last use of the Wardian Case in the 1920s was to deliver insects to feed on invasive plants that had been moved to new environments without consideration of the possible ramifications.

Another “Aha Moment” That Took A Century

Technological innovations are often the result of an incremental process. People had been moving plants in various types of boxes long before Dr. Ward and growing plants in glasshouses.

Ward’s discovery was a fortunate accident. But it was a lifetime of formal education and personal study, along with his passion and powers of observation and reason that set the table for his aha moment that changed our world.

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