The Wardian Case – A Mobile Greenhouse

In 1829, the surgeon and amateur naturalist Nathanial Bagshaw Ward accidentally discovered that plants enclosed in airtight glass cases can survive for long periods without watering. The Wardian Case, as it came to be called, revolutionized the movement of plants around the globe. Used for over a century, the case greatly increased the chances of plants’ survival during transit. The commercial, industrial, and environmental consequences were immense: it enabled a human-facilitated movement of nature that was unprecedented in history. In 1876, for example, the explorer Henry Wickham smuggled about 70,000 seeds of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis from the Amazon to London. Cultivated and shipped in Wardian cases, they formed the basis of a booming Asian rubber industry. In 1848, disguised as a Chinese merchant, Robert Fortune, a plant hunter and member of the Horticultural Society in London, smuggled nearly 20,000 tea seedlings and plants from China to India with the help of the Wardian case. This set the foundations for the Indian tea industry and one of the world’s most famous acts of botanical espionage. From a global environmental perspective, the Wardian Case might be one of the earliest examples of human technology shaping biological occurrence.

Contributed by Josephine Musil-Gutsch
Deutsches Museum München

Further Readings: 
  • Ward, Nathaniel Bagshaw. On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. London 1842.
  • Heilbron, J.L. The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. Oxford, 2003.