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The history of terrariums, the garden under glass

The History of Terrariums

The History of Terrariums

One of the things that we love most about terrariums is their deep history. Although these miniature ecosystems are gathering a lot of momentum today as a great alternative to having your own garden, they are actually in their third succession.


In 1892, entomologist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward first discovered the effects of these sealed glass vessels when, one day, he was monitoring the evolution of a Sphinx Moth Chrysalis on a bed of compost in a glass jar. After a few weeks, he noticed what he thought to be a few blades of grass growing out of the compost - it later turned out that this was actually a miniature Fern. Ward was baffled by this as, for years, he had been trying to grow and cultivate ferns both inside and outside his London home and here, without even trying, was this tiny fern; and it was thriving!

Ward set up a few of these sealed glass experiments and he figured out that these sealed glass jars provided the perfect environment for many different plants to thrive; the glass protects the plants from any outside elements, regulates the temperature and maintains a constant humidity. The plants are able to photosynthesise inside just as they usually would, with the heat and the oxygen they produce during this process condensing on the inside of the glass, creating small water droplets which help to water the plants as well as creating a dense humid environment. This humidity means that a lot of tropical and jungle plants are very well suited to enclosed terrariums.

Drawing from the publication On the growth of plants in closely glazed cases 1852

Plant Transportation and Floating Gardens

Excited by his discovery Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward reported these findings to a friend of his, Robert Fortune (the director of the Chelsea Physic Garden at the time) and between them they pioneered the movement of tropical plants across the globe, using the Wardian Case. This was the era of the Victorian Plant Hunters, were people travelled for years on end from Europe over to the New World, mainly Australia to collect new species of plants, gathering samples and bringing them back on ships known as floating gardens. Before the invention or the Wardian Case, the success rate of bringing these plant specimens back was shockingly about 2%, as the conditions on board were not sufficiently managed; splashes of sea water, strong winds, lack of sun followed by prolonged encounters with the strong sun were causing most of the plants to die. With the development of the Wardan Case, this new way of keeping and transporting plants meant that the success rates on board the ships went up to 80%, and because of this you started to see a lot more tropical plants being introduced into the UK and Europe. This caused the trend of the Victorian Palm Houses to develop, as well as something known as Pteridomania.

Wardian case received by Kew from Hong Kong


Pteridomania is the obsession with all things fern! If you think about a lot of Victorian interiors, carpets, wallpaper and curtains etc you will notice a lot of big sweeping Fern motifs. Also the humble Custard Cream biscuit, which was first baked during the Victorian Times, sports many little swirls on the pattern and these swirls are apparently meant to be ferns - so they loved them!

You started to see these Wardian Cases popping up a lot in the homes of the wealthy, I think it was a bit of a social status symbol, who could have the most elaborate cases. Some were on tall wooden legs, some very ornate and even some had water heating systems installed so that they could have a higher and controlled humidity. Either way, as simple or elaborate as these cases were, they enabled people to keep these new tropical plants and ferns in the their home much more easily and without too much attention.


1970’s Houseplant Revolution

The obsession with indoor gardening dies down a bit after this, that is until the Houseplant revolution of the 1970’s. During this time people were starting to become more aware of environmental issues (Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970) combined with the continuing effect of the hippie culture for love, peace and the love of flowers and all living things. Whatever it was here you started to see the evolution of the more modern Carboy Terrariums. A Carboy is a huge glass vessel, spherical in shape and sometimes up to 60cm in diameter, and they would be used for storing wine and in some regions of France they still are. These big domes were often also filled with ferns, mosses, miniature palms and ivy, as they could last decades and there are reports of one which has lasted for 45 years despite only being watered once! The terrarium trend grew and flourished until the mid 80’s when technology started to take over and the love of houseplants turned into a tired Spider Plant in the corner of a room, going from chic to very shabby.

And now here we are in our next revival! 

Interested in learning more and planting your own terrarium, pop along to one of our terrarium workshops or buy a terrarium kit to do it yourself. We also plant all our terrariums up to order in our London studio, get in touch if you fancy something bespoke

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