Wardian cases

wardian caseIn the middle of the last century Wardian cases were as common in fashionable drawing rooms as television sets are in living rooms today. Wardian cases are glass cabinets with hinged glass doors in which various plants, including orchids, may be grown. The Wardian case was an invention of a London surgeon, Nathaniel Ward, who discovered the principle by accident.

In 1829 he placed a hawk-moth chrysalis on some damp leaf mould in a bottle, sealed it and set the bottle aside for the hawk-moth to emerge. In fact it never did, but two plants - a fem and a grass - germinated, and over a period of years continued to grow and flourish without watering. Twenty years later the same bottle, complete with the fern and grass, were displayed in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Ward experimented further and over the next three years raised no les s than 30 species of fern in sealed bottles placed , on his windowsill. At that time it was e almost impossible to grow ferns outside because of London's smoky atmosphere! The next step was to construct glass cabinets with hinged doors, named Wardian cases, which provided much r greater access to the plants than bottles , did. Soon their usefulness for transporting' living plants over long distances was realized. The London nurseryman, Conrad Loddiges, used a Wardian case to ship plants to Australia in 1834 and subsequently Kew Gardens used them to ship tea plants to India and rubber trees to Malaya.

The Wardian case meant that plant collectors could now send live specimens home with some chance of success. Just imagine these cases with their living plants strapped to the deck of early sailing ships taking weeks / months to reach home. The case not only protected them but meant they needed virtually no watering during the long voyage.

At first sight, it's surprising that all orchids weren't imported into Britain using Wardian cases last century. However, the two main means of transport, mule back and sailing ship, were not particularly conducive to the survival of such fragile cabinets. AIso, to be effective, Wardian cases had to be placed in sheltered, well-lit positions – difficult places to find on nineteenth-century sailing ships. No doubt some of the farer orchids were shipped in this way but most had to take their chance s in sealed wooden boxes in the hold. Back in the British drawing room, Wardian cases didn't take on until the tax on glass was repealed in 1845, when their cost fell dramatically.

Botany is concerned only with species and has no dealings with man-made hybrids. Back in the 1700's, when orchids were new to the world, plants were gathered from the wild by explorers who had leanings towards botany, and it was considered necessary that these new plants should be classified and named for posterity.

Then the world of Horticulture took an interest and, amongst other things, experimented with hybridizing, first with inter- specifics and later with inter-generics. This practice became so popular, it was, fortuitously, considered necessary to record and register the burgeoning product, quite separate from any botanical record. This record was originated by the foremost nursery of the time - Sanders. In a remarkably short time, it became far too massive a job for a private company to maintain, so the Royal Horticultural Society, in conjunction with the International Orchid Commission, took over the task and has maintained a most meticulous record ever since. In recognition of the foresight and dedication of the Sander's efforts, the record has been titled The Sander' s List of Orchid I Hybrids.

And, after all this information had been disseminated all over the world, the Botanist/taxonomists discovered that over the preceding 150 years or so, their forerunners had made a lot of mistakes and a lot of species orchids had been incorrectly named. These mistakes appear to have been discovered only long after the original expert had joined his ancestors and could not defend his findings.


D. E. Allen, The Victorian fern craze, 1969

David Hershey 1996 "Doctor Ward's Accidental Terrarium". The American Biology Teacher 58:276-281