The History of the Terrarium
The idea of growing plants in glass enclosures is definitely not a new one. In fact, people have been growing plants under bell-shaped jars, for the purpose of exhibit, since approximately 500 B.C. However, the modern-day terratium, as we know it, was not invented until 1827.
The fern case, as it was originally known, was invented, by accident, by Dr. Nathaniel Ward. Ward, a London Physician with a passion for botany, built a fern rockery in his backyard. Despite his best efforts, Dr. Ward's ferns kept dying. Ward believed that the ferns were being poisoned by the toxic fumes in the air. At the time, the air in London was severely polluted due to the large number of factories. At the same time, Ward was also working on another experiment. He had been working with moths and caterpillars and, while experimenting with a cocoon in a covered jar, he noticed that several plants had grown in the bit of soil at the bottom of the jar. Among these plants was a fern. A fern that, unlike that ferns that Dr. Ward had grown in his backyard, was healthy. Dr. Ward concluded that plants could flourish in London if they could be protected from the city's polluted air.
Ward pursued this discovery further in miniature greenhouses, which he called fern cases. Fern cases are now known as Wardian cases or terrariums. So, it can be said that the modern-day terrarium was invented by accident. In their early days, terrariums were an important invention. For the first time, horticulturists were able to bring back sensitive tropical plants in Wardian cases. The cases protected the plants from the salt air and the changing climatic conditions during long sea voyages.
Wardian cases also became popular for growing plants. After a period of time, the Wardian case became somewhat of a domestic necessity. Poor people had to settle for inexpensive, homemade versions while rich people enjoyed the limitless possible designs of elaborate ornamental terrariums. Early terrariums were sometimes designed to model famous landmarks, such as the Taj Mahal. Early Wardian cases were so fashionable in the United States in the 1860's that no self-respecting Victorian household was without one.
Today's Wardian cases, or terrariums, whichever name you prefer, no longer have the need to protect our plants from cold, dry or polluted air. They do, however, serve another important purpose. With modern inventions such air conditioners and forced air heated homes, many varieties of plants have difficulty surviving without constant attention. Terrariums allow us to keep plants in our homes in attractive and decorative containers, while creating an environment which requires very little care. A closed terrarium, happy in its humidity filled surrounding, may actually thrive on neglect.