Robert (gurdonark) wrote,


Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward occupies one of those places in history I find completely enviable. He's one of those hobbyists who changed the face of botany.

He practiced medicine in London's East End. The London of those days
featured a great deal of smokestack pollution.Dr. Ward's garden ferns never thrived.Dr. Ward's discovery, though, arose in a completely unrelated vein. Yet his discovery ensured that tropical plants would be available to even those in the coldest climates.

It all started with a moth chrysalis. Dr. Ward found a sphinx moth cocoon while walking in a park. He took it home, and put it in a sealed container to see what woudl happen. History really doesn't record whether the moth spread its wings. Dr. Ward instead wrote about how he noticed that plant seeds in the case germinated and thrived. He had the foresight to have sealed cases constructed.

Ward's own garden experience made him appreciate how useful this serendipitous discovery might become to plant science. He determined to try an experiment. He shipped a case full of plants to Australia. The plants lived and arrived safely. Two years later, in 1835, a shipment of Australian plants went back in the cases to Dr. Ward. Although the voyage took eight months, around Cape Horn, through terrible storms, the plants arrived in England safely.

The Wardian case, now known as the terrarium, then revolutionized not only botany, but also the everyday lives of ordinary people.The Wardian Case became a standby in many Victorian homes.

Even today, one of the easiest ways to garden tropicals is to plant them in a terrarium. This hobby gets less press than others in our consumerism-satured world, because a terrarium requires no massive outlay of funds, reducing its advertising value. A simple terrarium book can be purchased at a used bookstore or on-line for very few dollars. A terrarium can be almost any home jar or bottle. The ingredients don't run much past a bit of charcoal, a bit of gravel, a bit of potting soil, and an informal seal of rubber bands and plastic wrap, or any of a dozen other ways to do it.

I love the terrarium not only because I am a brown-thumbed person who loves plants, but also because terraria are such a metaphor for me. Too many times in this big, wide world, everything seems a deadly, toxic mess. A terrarium, gently constructed, can be an oasis of calm, or a laboratory. I like, sometimes, to plant flower seeds, to see a cycle of life occur in a matter of days. My Wardian cases do not always thrive, but they always interest and enchant.

I have a 2 gallon plastic aquarium I bought at a rummage sale last winter that I intend to convert into a terrarium. I have not decided whether to plant seed or
little plants. I think that this time I will try to set something up that might last for a year or two, but I may change my mind and go for blooms. I love blooms.

Dr. Ward did not leave a lot of biographical details for posterity. He had the honor of being recognized in his own time for his contribution. He got the appropriate fellowships in the appropriate societies. He apparently devoted time to trying to find a balance between the harsh urban landscape and the human need for light and green and air.

But I'd like to take a moment this fine Sunday morning to remember a man who
saw the evidence of a germinated seed before his eyes, and realized that he had stumbled upon a scientific truth. Some people think that truth comes only from others or from old books. Dr. Ward saw the evidence of his eyes, and facilitated the import and study of plants thought un-transportable.

I like the idea of small, created universes of calm. As I read the news accounts of our friends in Spain, recovering from terror, or the fervent gun battles which grip the Pakistani wilderness right now, I'm in favor of a few places where green plants grow, protected from smokestack pollution.

  • A Trip to Mena

    Friday morning we set out to drive from our home to Mena, Arkansas. We saw a Bald Eagle between Durant, Oklahoma and Atoka. A bit past the…

  • Beginning

    Today we saw a Bald Eagle in flight between Durant and Atoka, Oklahoma. We saw people fishing from a bridge on Sardis Lake. from Dreamwidth, because…

  • Swoop and Fall

    I worked a tad late tonight. I picked us up grilled chicken sandwiches "no mayo, no cheese" at Hat Creek. The 4th blitz tournament I…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded