What Goes Around (Wardian Cases)

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by Ken Slump

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A Revival of the Wardian Case Sparks Interest Among Orchid Enthusiasts

GARDENING IS NOT IMMUNE TO styles, trends and fads. And so it seems that the time has come again for a broad interest in terrarium gardens and Wardian cases, which can be particularly useful for cultivating some types of orchids. During our school years, most of us learned to appreciate the advantages that a Wardian case or terrarium has to offer in environmental or habitat control for certain plants and some types of small animals. Yet there was a time not so long ago when those advantages were unknown.

THE STORY BEGINS  The Wardian case was an almost accidental discovery made by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868). Not a lot is known about Ward, except that he was a practicing physician in the East End of London. He seems to have had a keen interest in the natural world, particularly botany and entomology.

Ward also had a fascination with tropical plants. Some believe he traveled to Jamaica as a young teenager, which may have been the catalyst. In any case, Ward lived in the exciting time when almost unbelievable numbers of new plants and animals were being discovered and collected from all corners of the globe. Unfortunately, many of them perished en route to England, or soon succumbed to the polluted air, primarily the coal smoke generated by the industrial age that was occurring in the cities at that time.

As the story goes, in about 1829, Ward, having saved the pupa of a moth in the environment of a sealed jar, noticed that a fern and some grass had begun to develop in the soil at the base of the jar. Growing and shipping plants under glass was not entirely new, but Ward studied this sealed environment. He eventually shared his observations in correspondence with William Jackson Hooker, an important botanist of his time who, among other positions, served as director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Hooker was also the father of Joseph Dalton Hooker, perhaps the most important British botanist and plant collector of the 19th century. The younger Hooker was among the first to employ a Wardian case to ship plants back to England. He too eventually served as director at Kew.

Ward soon hired a carpenter to build a case with a frame of hard, decay-resistant wood and sealed glass sides. In 1833, he shipped two such cases filled with a number of ferns and grasses from England to Australia. The plants arrived in Sydney in excellent condition after a six-month voyage through salty sea air. The cases were cleaned and refilled with native Australian species that had been unsuccessfully transported in the past. The return trip in 1835 took eight months on stormy seas, yet the Australian plants also arrived in fine condition. This experiment prompted Ward to publish a pamphlet and eventually a book about growing plants in closed cases.

Ward’s observations and writings helped fuel the Victorian passion for growing exotic plants, particularly ferns and, with the use of Wardian cases, the plants’ cultivation was achieved. Indeed, the orchid craze of the late 19th century would not have been possible without Ward’s efforts. Wardian cases are also credited with a number of important successful plant transportations that changed the face of international agriculture, particularly in locating important crops such as tea plants, rubber trees and bananas from their native lands to sites where they became invaluable economic resources. 

Today, the term Wardian case is applied to a variety of closed or semiclosed constructions that are designed for growing plants, but their size and the sort of environmental conditions they offer vary greatly. Examples range from rather small closed environments to those that almost resemble miniature greenhouses in that they have climate control features that may include vents, fans, lighting and humidification. Orchids can certainly be grown in many of them, but you must choose the right orchids for the right size and style of Wardian case.

ORCHIDS  Consider the range of possibilities and how the climatic environment within them might be altered. The simplest glass or plastic boxes without any sort of climate control must be carefully situated and planted. If the environment is sealed or mostly sealed, the cases should not be placed in direct sun or the plants will succumb to excessive temperatures. A bit of ventilation can completely alleviate this problem and the solar heating that is gained when the right level of ventilation is achieved can provide the necessary day-to-night temperature variation that many plants require.

Too much ventilation can lead to a loss of humidity. Since high relative humidity is one of the chief benefits of the closed environment you may have to augment it if levels are consistently too low.

Plants that require higher light levels than ambient light provides may thrive with the addition of fluorescent lights. These can not only provide a good spectrum of light for plant growth, but also have the advantage of producing relatively low amounts of heat.

Many types of orchids require good air movement to thrive. The addition of a tiny fan may be all that is necessary if you want to grow those in a Wardian case.

The size of the case should help guide plant selection. With the larger climate-controlled cases nearly any of the tropical epiphytic species and hybrids that can fit into them may thrive. Keep in mind, however, the eventual size and length of inflorescence those orchids will produce. Smaller closed terrariums are better suited to miniature and dwarf species that do not require good air circulation.

Terrestrial or semiterrestrial orchids can be particularly useful in terrarium display, but care must be taken that the soil or growing medium does not become waterlogged. When considering orchids for the moist environment of a small closed Wardian case, the jewel orchids are among the first recommendations that come to mind. These plants are grown for their beautiful foliage rather than their flowers, and most have a creeping growth habit that works well in a naturalistic setting.

The rather rounded foliage of many jewel orchids is lined or netted with colorful veins that often have a metallic sheen. These plants grow in the humus-rich forest floors in the jungles of the South Pacific. High light levels are not required, but they appreciate warmth and humidity. Perhaps the most familiar is Ludisia discolor. The form that is typically seen has dark reddish-green leaves with veins of red to gold. Another popular jewel orchid is Goodyera hispida, a plant with dark leaves and a net of silvery veins. Other jewel orchids are in the genus Macodes. A Wardian case could be assembled using jewel orchids exclusively.

Species from the genus Paphiopedilum can make good terrarium subjects. Make sure to allow space for their mature span of foliage and height of inflorescence. Suggestions might include the species Paphiopedilum insigne, Paphiopedilum druryi or Paphiopedilum venustum. Many hybrids could be handsomely grown and displayed in a Wardian case. Paphio-pedilum Lunacy (Hellas × Skip Bartlett) and Paphiopedilum Ma Belle (bellatulum × malipoense) are hybrids that have proven to be vigorous and floriferous growers for me.

Some of the smaller species and hybrids of the genus Phalaenopsis could thrive in a terrarium environment, but would also require space considerations for their flower spikes. Species such as Phalaenopsis lueddemanniana, Phalaenopsis fasciata and Phalaenopsis lindenii immediately come to mind. Some of the smaller-flowered Phalaenopsis equestris hybrids could be good candidates. Other possibilities might include miniatures, such as Phalaenopsis lobbii and Phalaenopsis parishii.

There are some orchid oddities that might also thrive in a Wardian case. 

The ghost orchid, Dendrophylax (syn. Polyrrhiza) lindenii does well with humid conditions and relatively stagnant air, so it seems like a good possibility for a closed environment. Some of the pleurothallid orchids, such as the showy Masdevallia species and hybrids, Lepanthes spp. or Stelis spp. would also be good terrarium candidates if you can keep the temperatures on the cool side.

However, keeping temperatures low can be challenging in a Wardian case, particularly if supplemental lighting is used. You will likely have better success with growing orchids in closed environments if you choose those that thrive at intermediate to warm temp-eratures. Your plant selection will be wider too if you are able to provide good air circulation in the closed environment and at least a bit of ventilation to allow some air exchange.

With supplemental light, air movement and ventilation, a Wardian case can achieve the environmental potential of a small greenhouse. The better you can control the growing environment, the wider your plant selection will be. While virtually any potted epiphytic orchid could thrive in an enclosed environment, orchids of small stature that are mounted on bark, tree fern slabs or small branches seem particularly well suited to the humid environment that could be offered in a good Wardian case.

ALTERNATIVES  If you are interested in exploring the possibilities and advantages of growing orchids in a closed environment, but do not have an interest is building your own Wardian case, there are other options.

One of the best places to look for terrarium possibilities is at a pet store or similar business that specializes in tropical aquariums. Equally suitable for use as terrariums are plexiglass and glass tanks designed to house tropical fish. They come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes and can be found at the bigger stores.

The advantage of adapting aquariums for this type of use is that many of the climate control issues have already been solved. Most aquariums have a close fitting top or hood. If not already built in, these usually have options available for adding fluorescent lighting. It is generally quite easy to arrange a bit of ventilation through the top of an aquarium and simple to run a cord out of it for a tiny fan. Lots of aquariums also have stands designed for them that will elevate them to an attractive level for viewing. 

The packages can be quite pricey, even without a fish, let alone a plant, so if you are interested in pursuing the aquarium route for your Wardian case, ask the store’s owner or manager if he or she by chance have any cracked, damaged or used aquariums for sale. You might save a small fortune on a container that is no longer suitable for fish, but could still be ideal for plants.

Alternately, you do not have to look far these days to find Wardian cases designed with the garden hobbyist in mind. They range from miniature glasshouses with Victorianesque styling to climate controlled orchidariums that are comparable in size to refrigerators. The possibilities seem to be limited only by your imagination and budget. If you cannot find what you are looking for at your local greenhouse, nursery, garden center or home improvement store, look to garden supply catalogs for a wide range of options. Failing that, the Internet can unquestionably put endless possibilities at your fingertips.

BENEFITS  Orchid growers employ contemporary Wardian cases in many ways. Some use the climate control advantages of Wardian cases simply to cultivate better plants. Other growers have the goal of achieving a landscape vignette in a Wardian case and may include ferns, mosses and miniature plants with their orchids to complete the scene. 

Others opt to use such cases to display one or a few flowering orchid plants brought from their greenhouse or orchid growing area into their main living area for a temporary display. Certainly such enclosures help to keep those flowering orchids fresh longer.

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