Wardian cases are the precursor to modern-day terrariums- glass enclosed boxes for growing plants. I saw one yesterday at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was surprised to learn about its impact on the agricultural industry. Those seemingly innocuous boxes that blend into fancy plant displays are actually responsible for the cultivation of the tea industry in India. And the rubber industry in SouthEast Asia. And plantations of coffee, bananas, citrus fruits, cocoa beans and vanilla in tropical countries around the world.
1830’s London was a very dirty place. The air in the city was polluted with coal smoke and sulphuric acid. London resident Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had a keen interest in growing ferns (this was back in the day when growing certain species of plants were considered fads), but was having difficulty keeping his ferns healthy. In addition to botany, he also kept cocoons of moths and other insects in glass jars. He noticed that a few fern spores that had gotten into the glass jars were germinating in a small amount of soil. As an experiment, he built a closely fitted glass case with a wooden base and filled it with ferns. He found that the enclosed plants not only faired better than the ones in the greenhouse, but thrived. He conducted much further research and wrote several papers on his findings.
During that time in world history, ocean transport of plants had been difficult because of the sea spray and the length of transit. However, housed within a protective glass case, the plants survived the journey. He did experiments of sending plants to Australia, and his friend in Australia sent him back some native Australian plants that had never before been seen in England.
Fashionable households adapted the Wardian cases to make impressive indoor plant displays, but the largest (and furthest) impact was made on commercially imported plants. It started a revolution, breaking down the geographic monopolies on the growth and transport of agricultural goods.
Introducing: Robert Fortune, employed by the Horticultural Society of London. 1842’s Treaty of Nanjing allowed new access to China’s ports, though still heavily restricted by the Chinese government. Fortune was dispatched to China to study their native plants. The British East India Company had asked him to acquire tea plants for some newly acquired land in Darjeeling, India. Traveling under the disguise of a Chinese merchant and breaking the Chinese governments rule of only traveling a day’s journey, he reached provinces as far as Fuijan and Guangdong along the southern coast of China.
Fortune managed to smuggle 20,000 tea plants and seedlings out of Shanghai. In addition to the agricultural stock, he also brought with him a group of Chinese tea workers to teach the methods of cultivation and production in the new land. His impact eventually lead to the British establishing successful tea gardens in Darjeeling and Assam, India, thus ending their dependance on China for tea.