THE WARDIAN CASE by Brian Milligan

London surgeon Nathaniel Ward could have no idea of what would follow when in 1829 he found a chrysalis (butterfly cocoon), sealed it in a bottle, and set it aside to watch it hatch. The chrysalis never hatched but by next spring two tiny seedlings, a grass and a fern, had sprouted from the damp earth on which the chrysalis was lying. These seedlings continued to grow, sustained only by the moisture trapped in the bottle. Twenty years later, the fern was still alive!

Nathaniel Ward experimented with other plants in sealed glass containers and had great success with ferns, which otherwise died in the smoky atmosphere that prevailed in London during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ward showed one of his fern-cases to the Linnean Society and thus began a hobby among the British gentility that by 1850 (after the punitive tax on glass had been repealed in 1845) had grown to full-blown “pterido-mania”! By then, almost every London drawing room contained a fern collection in a sealed glass case or ‘Wardian’ case, as it came to be known. Designs ranged from simple, square or round cases to elaborate affairs resembling Gothic cathedrals, Tintern Abbey and the Crystal Palace! By 1860 the Wardian case had run its course (in Victorian drawing rooms, at least), and was replaced by the home aquarium!

However, the Wardian case had a far bigger impact on horticulture than as a means of beautifying Victorian drawing rooms. The London nurseryman, Conrad Loddiges, was one of the first to appreciate its utility. He used a Wardian case to send a consignment of plants to Sydney in 1834, and was delighted to hear that they had survived the long sea voyage. The success of this venture led to the successful importation into Britain of many exotic plants, including orchids, from all corners of the globe using Wardian cases. One of the most important crops from which Britain benefited commercially was rubber. Large numbers of rubber tree seedlings raised at Kew Gardens from seed collected in Brazil were successfully transported to Malaya in Wardian cases. Within forty years Malaya had displaced Brazil as the world’s major source of natural rubber. Eventually synthetic rubber replaced natural rubber for many uses but I believe that natural rubber is still used for aircraft tyres and other specialty products.

Not all orchid species were transported from their native homes to Britain in Wardian cases. In fact most orchids had to endure being sealed in wooden cases for the journey. Cases with glass tops and/or sides were fragile, and especially likely to be damaged during transport from the orchids’ native habitat to the nearest seaport or navigable river. And then, for maximum benefit, the Wardian cases had to be stored on board ship where they were exposed to diffuse but not direct sunlight, not in a pitch-black hold. However, those plants deemed to be most valuable were usually carried in Wardian cases. John Gibson used Wardian cases to transport orchids and other exotic plants that he collected in India for his employer, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, in 1837. The added expense of using Wardian cases was of no consequence to the Duke, who probably spent more money on his orchids than any one before or since!

The development of the commercial airliner spelled the end of the Wardian case for transporting plants internationally. However, it is still used by amateurs for growing orchids and other exotic plants in city apartments, especially in countries with cold climates. Advertisements for Wardian cases with temperature, humidity and light controls still appear in overseas orchid journals. And it all began with a chrysalis and a fern spore in a bottle.