Wardian cases

Wardian cases

Some of the greatest inventions arrive by accident. So it is with the Wardian case. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868) was a doctor in the East End of London who had a fascination for botany and natural history. His hobby of growing ferns was made extremely difficult by the soot, smog and “noxious gasses” outside. Around 1829 he was attempting to raise a sphinx moth from a chrysalis he had placed on damp leaf mould in a sealed bottle when he noticed a fern growing.


Observing closely, he saw that the moisture in the bottle was being constantly recycled through evaporation and condensation, regardless of conditions outside. It had its own microclimate. He had discovered the terrarium.

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, pictured in 1866

This was to be one of the most influential discoveries of all time. To his credit, Ward instantly recognised its importance and spent four years testing and experimenting with various types of case.

He saw it as a way for the urban poor to supplement their diet, enabling them to grow vegetables and healthy salads regardless of the pollution outside. But he also recognised its commercial value.

The challenge

For decades plant hunters had been sending back specimens from as far afield as Brazil, America and China. Often they had to rely on ships’ captains to nurture the plants en-route. Suffice to say, a large proportion arrived home dead. In 1819, for example, John Livingstone, a botanist and surgeon working for the East India Company in Macao, wrote to the Royal Horticultural Society estimating that only one in a thousand plants survived the journey from China to London.

Nurseries experimented, packing plants in dry sand or moss with mixed success. If it was not the temperature that killed them, it was the lack of sunlight or the exposure to sea spray. On long voyages, when drinking water supplies were running low, the captains would, not surprisingly, prioritise sailors over plants. And in violent storms the plants might be washed overboard.

Now all this was to change. With the help of the famous Hoxton nursery, Loddiges, Ward created the first Wardian cases – in essence, miniature sealed greenhouses protected by a wooden frame with carrying handles.

The first trial

In June 1833 two of the cases were taken to St Katharine’s Dock and packed on to the deck of the Persian, a ship carrying emigrants to Australia. The cases were filled with ferns, mosses and grasses. The ship docked in Sydney in November. All but three ferns arrived alive and vigorous. In fact, the grasses were growing so strongly the ship’s captain, Charles Mallard, reported that they were attempting to push the top of the box off. The plants were watered just once during the voyage – a light sprinkling near the equator.

At Sydney the cases were refilled and placed on the deck of the boat. The journey home lasted eight months and took in temperatures of as a low as -7°C rounding Cape Horn, where the decks were covered in a foot of snow. At the equator temperatures peaked at the other extreme, reaching 49°C. The plants were not watered during the whole voyage.

Ward wrote: “On their arrival at the docks they were in the most healthy and vigorous condition, and I shall not readily forget the delight expressed by Mr. G. Loddiges, who accompanied me on board, at the beautiful appearance of the fronds of Gleichenia microphylla, a [fern] plant now for the first time seen alive in this country. Several plants of Callicoma serrata [Black Wattle] had sprung up from seed during the voyage, and were in a very healthy state.”[1]

Within a couple of years George Loddiges had trialled more than 500 of the cases around the world, though he complained that many captains would promise to keep them on deck, but “the moment we are out of sight, they stow them away below”. The Duke of Devonshire was early to recognise their potential, sending one of his gardeners to the East Indies to procure vegetable treasures for his magnificent conservatory at Chatsworth, including the Amherstia nobilis, known as the orchid tree.

Fern illustration from Ward’s 1842 book

Loddiges had more success than Livingstone transporting plants, but still expected only one in 20 plants to survive a long sea voyage before the discovery of the Wardian case. Afterwards it was 19 in 20.

Ward tells us that on his first trip to China in 1843 Robert Fortune sent home 250 specimens in Wardian cases, landing 215 in England in perfect health. On his second visit he exported nearly 20,000 tea plants from Shanghai to the Himalayas.

Espionage and smuggling

That act of horticultural espionage helped set up the tea industry in India and break China’s monopoly of the commodity. It highlights the role of the Wardian case in the expansion of empire. Botanists became fascinated with the economic opportunity to be had from taking cash crops from one country to another.

Wardian cases were used to help export cinchona trees from Bolivia to Java and India, so that the bark, which produced quinine, could be more readily available to produce malaria treatments. Likewise Brazilian rubber trees were sent ultimately to Malaya, and dwarf Cavendish bananas moved to the Samoan islands (via Chatsworth) where they became a significant crop in the region.

In that sense the Wardian case became a symbol of empire. Suffice to say it did not transform the lives of working class Londoners, though terrariums became a popular craze among middle class Victorians, seen planted with ferns in living rooms across the land.

The kind of Wardian case that graced so many living rooms. Taken from the Gardener’s Chronicle

Nor did it enrich Ward himself. He did not patent his invention and was to die in relative poverty.

On Christmas Day, 1866, he wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray, saying: “Thirty-three years have elapsed since my first cases arrived in New Holland… I have never received the slightest acknowledgement or thanks from any public body in this country.”

He complained about the hundreds, even thousands, of letters of enquiry he had received and answered about the cases, and the visits – too often – of “idle and ignorant people who were tired of their lives for want of something to do. But were my time to come over again, I should do precisely as I have done considering that my life, though one of constant labour, has been one of great delight.”[2]

Eventually the transport of plants in Wardian Cases ended when it was realised that too often they were bringing not just the intended plants but also invasive species. Kew Gardens last used one in 1962 to ship ornamental plants from Fiji to the Gardens.

Today fewer than 20 original Wardian cases are known to exist around the world – Kew has eight of them.


[1] “On the growth of plants in closely glazed cases” N B Ward 1842

[2] “The Wardian Case: How a simple gox moved plants and changed the world” Luke Keogh

Read the story of the day a primrose caused crowds to gather in Melbourne – all thanks to the Wardian case.


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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.