The Wardian Case: A Botanical Technology to Move Plants

We are delighted that Luke Keogh has been awarded the 2019 Maurice Daumas Prize for the best article in history of technology from ICOHTEC, with his article ‘The Wardian Case: Environmental Histories of a Box for Moving Plants’ (Environment and History 25). Here he briefly introduces the article.

In 1829 the doctor and amateur naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward placed the chrysalis of a moth, soil and dried leaves inside a glass bottle and screwed the cap on tight and placed it on the windowsill. He was waiting to see the moth hatch. As he waited and watched something else sprouted inside the bottle – a fern and meadow grass. The moth hatched and was let go. But it was the plants that grew inside the bottle that captured Ward’s attention.

A keen naturalist, Ward had tried for many years to get the fern to grow in his London garden but the polluted city air that surrounded his Welclose Square home prevented it. Inside the bottle, however, the fern thrived.


Nathaniel Ward. Lithography by R.J. Lane. Wikimedia commons

Ward had discovered a new method to keep his plants alive. Under glass, so long as there was sunlight and moisture inside the case, plants could survive in this micro-environment for long periods. Ward suggested they could survive as long as eight months without watering. The Wardian case was discovered. Over the coming years Ward experimented further with plants under glass.

The wider implications of Ward’s invention were for the long-distance transport of live plants. For much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century transporting plants between countries amounted to a great challenge. In 1819 John Livingstone, a keen botanist and surgeon posted to Macao for the East India Company, estimated that only one in a thousand plants survived the journey from China to Britain.

In 1833 Nathaniel Ward tested his invention by transporting two travelling style cases on the longest journey then known – to Australia. The plants survived the six-month journey to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. The cases were repacked and sent back to Ward in London. Again, they survived. When Ward and his friend and George Loddiges, a well-known nursery owner, went aboard the ship in London to inspect the plants, he wrote: ‘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 plant now for the first time seen alive in this country.’

The experiment was a success.

Planting a Wardian case was quite simple. Inside the case first you placed a layer of rocks or broken bricks, followed by a layer of sphagnum moss or leaf litter, and then followed by a layer of soil. Once plants were in the soil, battens were often placed across the inside of the box to hold everything in place. The plants were well watered and often let settle for a few days or even weeks. Often there was a hole in the base of the case that allowed water to drain before a plug was placed in the hole and they were ready for the journey ahead. Following this the case was closed up and not opened until plants arrived at their destination.

The original plan for a Wardian case that Ward adopted for moving plants. From his publication On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases (1852).

Over the coming years the Wardian case would be used widely to transport plants. Ward’s friend George Loddiges, of the famous Loddiges & Sons nursery in Hackney, after the first successful transport put into use 500 Wardian cases for his international shipments. It would become the primary means for transplanting live plants. It was used for over a century by nurseries, botanical gardens, plant explorers and agriculturalists.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, would use the case extensively to move plants, particularly for their plant hunters and for sending plants to their network of botanical gardens in the colonies. In return many of their cases were returned with unique foreign plants that botanists at Kew would name and describe in their publications.

Nathaniel Ward was not only a keen experimenter but was well-connected among London naturalists. Among his correspondents were Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday. His friends included Kew’s directors William Hooker and Joseph Hooker, as well as the famous nurseryman George Loddiges and the accomplished Irish botanist William Henry Harvey. Ward was well connected and happy to host a plant-lover at his home. All  these connections greatly helped in promoting the case and leading to its wide usage. It was used by institutions and companies all over the world, from Britain to Germany, from Australia to Belgium; and the case travelled all over the world from Calcutta to Cameroon, from Melbourne to Peking.

One of the many beautiful plants sent in Wardian case, Prepusa hookeriana. This plant was collected by George Gardner in Brazil in the 1840s and named for William Hooker.

The most famous plants that were moved in Wardian cases are successful economic plants such as the Cavendish banana, cinchona, coffee, tea, rubber and many more. These plants were distributed beyond their home range and would go on to have significant impact for agricultural economies in distant locations. There were also many ornamentals sent including fuchsia, ixora and many many varieties of roses. Often any single case being sent could be filled with up to one hundred plants of all sorts of plant varieties.

Wardian case in use at the Dominica Botanic Garden, Roseau, 1932. Photo by P.H. Dorsett. Collection of the Archives of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Successfully sending live plants around the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in Wardian cases helped to transform our global environment, not only increasing the number and variety of plants that could be moved, but also unleashing a whole range of other ecological impacts that are still with us today.

Luke Keogh is a curator and historian. His article ‘The Wardian Case: Environmental Histories of a Box for Moving Plants’ published in Environment and History (2019) recently won the Maurice Daumas Prize from the International Committee for the History of Technology for the best article published in the history of technology in 2019. His book The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World, is published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2020.

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