The Fascinating History of Terrariums

Derived from the Latin words terra, meaning earth, and arium, meaning place or receptacle, terrariums are miniature, self-sustaining ecosystems enclosed within glass jars.


First gaining popularity in the Victorian era, terrariums are experiencing a bit of a resurgence. Offering an alternative method of growing stunning plants from faraway lands, terrariums add a natural touch to our indoor spaces in a way that is truly unique.

So how did Terrariums come to be?

The History of Terrariums

The discovery of terrariums as a method of growing plants came to be as a result of a bit of an accident.


In the late 1820s the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. London had become an urban hub of manufacturing. The resultant smoke from coal burning machinery and domestic fires enveloped the city, particularly the less affluent areas.

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a doctor working in a small area in London’s East End called Whitechapel had a love for gardening. However, despite his passion his ventures within the worlds of botany and horticulture were rarely successful. The everpresent thick smoke made his beloved hobby exceptionally difficult due to the poor air quality and loss of sunlight..

While attempting to hatch an insect chrysalis inside a glass bottle Ward noticed something incredible. He observed early on that condensation would form on the inside of the glass during the day and return to the bottom of the bottle at night. Later, one of the spores of a fern he had placed within the bottle alongside some leaf litter had sprouted. The discovery made perfect sense. The sealed glass bottle provided the perfect environment for the little fern to thrive: consistent humidity and clean air that was kept separate from the smoke outside. His glass bottle design transformed into a miniature sealed greenhouse, using the same principles except having the added feature of being sealed to retain moisture. And thus, the Wardian Case was born.

"The sealed glass bottle provided the perfect environment for the little fern to thrive: consistent humidity, moisture and clean air that was kept separate from the smoke outside."

A Revolutionary Revelation

Ward was confident his invention would revolutionize how plants were transported across the world. He hypothesized that the ecosystem created within the sealed cases would protect the plants from the harsh elements while also providing them with the moisture they needed during long sea voyages. He brought his proposal to British naturalist and gardener George Loddiges, who was responsible for the importation of many species of plants into the UK. In 1833, the pair packed a Wardian Case with a mix of ferns, grasses and mosses and sent them to Sydney.


In November 1834 the cases returned, filled with a variety of ferns, the vast majority of which were perfectly healthy. Many of the transported specimens were the first live introductions of ferns such as the Gleichenia microphylla and several Callicoma serratifolia into the UK. His plan had worked perfectly.

Ward wrote about his cases in his 1842 book On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, as well as writing articles for many popular horticulture publications. His eagerness to share his invention led to its widespread adoption. From well known nurseries like Conrad Lodigges & Sons, to the Royal Horticultural Society of England and British Royal Navy. In fact, the cases became a key instrument in British Colonialism, aiding them in breaking China’s monopoly on tea by establishing plantations in India, as well as the establishment of many commercial crops such as the Musa Dwarf Cavendish, or seedless banana plant on the islands of Oceania.

"The ecosystem created within the sealed cases would protect the plants from the harsh elements while also providing them with the moisture they needed during long sea voyages."

As well as being a scientific revelation, the cases also became a cultural phenomenon. His cases were displayed at The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 where visitors could peer through the glass and see a display of ferns from all over the world. The middle and upper classes made them features of their homes, often placing them in front of windows to obscure the view of the unsightly coal chimneys that many of them were the beneficiaries of.


Yet, despite the widespread adoption and success of his invention, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward never really profited from it financially. He willingly shared his idea with the world and as the case traveled the globe Ward stayed in London, continuing to practise as a doctor. And although his pockets never swelled, his collection of exotic plants certainly did, filling his fern herbarium with over 25,000 different species.

Our Handmade Terrariums

Clay: The Contemporary Botany Company


We lovingly curate a selection of indoor plants & handmade pots. Delivered across Dublin and Nationwide.


Words by: Clay: The Contemporary Botany Company


Images by:

A Butchers Hook


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