Sea Transport of Plants by Terrarium

Sea Transport of Plants by Terrarium

Ward's dealings with the famous Loddiges nursery, which sponsored plant explorations, probably led him to realize the potential of his invention for shipping plants by sea. Survival of living plants on long sea voyages was extremely poor. Plants kept on deck perished due to the hot sun, salt spray, high winds, or cabin boys who neglected to water them, and below deck they died from lack of light. In June, 1833, Ward filled some Wardian cases with plants and sent them to Sydney, Australia. The cases arrived in November with the plants thriving, despite the range of climates encountered on the long voyage. The cases were refilled with Australian plants in February, 1834, for the return voyage. The cases were placed on deck and left unwatered even though temperatures ranged from - 7 to 49oC, and the decks were covered with 30 cm of snow during part of the trip. On 24 November 1834, the ship docked in London, and Ward and a nurseryman were there to inspect them, as Ward explained in his 1852 book,

"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 [umbrella or coral fern], a plant now for the first time seen alive in this country."

Wardian cases quickly became the standard for plant explorers and greatly increased the flow of new foreign species into cultivation. George Loddiges found that the plant survival rate increased from 5% without to 95% with the Wardian case. Robert Fortune was one of the first plant explorers to utilize the Wardian case in his successful transport of 20,000 tea seedlings from China to India, which started India's tea industry. The use of the Wardian case for plant transport lasted for about a century until plastic bags made the heavy glass cases unnecessary.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Ward's invention of the terrarium is that it came so late. Glass containers were in wide use long before 1829, death of plants on sea voyages was a major problem, and many scientists were interested in plants. Had the terrarium been invented earlier, it may have accelerated plant introductions.

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©1998 David R. Hershey