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The History of Terrariums & Pteridomania

Pteridomania; The Victorian craze for ferns or fern-fever that swept Britain during 1840-1890’s. Making somewhat of a comeback in our present day.

Most modern terrariums are inspired by the Victorian Wardian case.

How was the terrarium discovered?

In 1829 Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented the Wardian case. A case made of glass & wood to transport & keep exotic plants alive. However this invention came from an accidental discovery. Ward at the time was fascinated by ferns but hadn’t had much luck growing them himself.

In the summer of 1829 Ward was studying insects & had buried a chrysalis (the pupa) of a Sphinx moth in a contained glass bottle with some moist mould. After about a week of observing the bottle a fern had germinated, along with some grass.

Ward was able to observe day to day how the vessel retained adequate moisture and was excluded of any outdoor containiments. The ideal conditions to grow tropical plants & ferns.

The invention of the Wardian case meant that explorers were able to safely transport & travel with exotics plants from all over the world. This was a huge game changer for trading,  the tea industry & for the era.

As Ward was the first to publish his studies, he has become widely known as the inventor of the terrarium. However, a Scottish botanist A. A. Maconochie, had invented something similar almost a decade earlier but rarely receives any credit.

How do terrariums work?

Today’s terrariums come in all shapes, sizes & vessels. You can have them open (generally used for arid plants) or enclosed depending on your preference. Terrariums are supposed to give the plants the more optimum conditions for plants to grow. The glass intensifies the light but also provides shelter to any outside contaminants.

As Ward discovered what had happened in his bottle. He was able to observe on a daily basis, during the day’s heat moisture would collect on the inside of the glass & would slowly filter back down to the mulch before the cycle would happen again. Ward was able to observe how the glass bottle was able to keep the same degree of humidity continuously.

But it wasn’t only the humidity that played a part. Due to the bottle being enclosed the inside is exempt from any outdoor contaminants. Ferns that Ward was desperately trying to grow outdoors would fail time & time again, he could then grow easily within an enclosed container.

What else was going on during the Victorian era?

Since everyone was going crazy for ferns, it wasn’t a surprise that glasshouses were becoming more popular.

At a similar time of Ward’s finding, George Loddiges was inspired to build to world’s largest hothouse. And in the early 1830’s Loddiges had his Grand Palm House built. A structure that was 80 foot long, 60 foot wide & 40 feet high.

George was the son of Conrad Loddiges, who had founded their nursery business & arboretum in around 1816. They traded in, and introduced; exotic plants, trees, shrubs, ferns, palms & orchids to the European gardens.

The nursery was a popular attraction & to get more visitors to the hothouse Loddiges, spread the rumor that ferns were a sign of intelligence, improved virility & mental health. Which was later proved to be correct in Edward Newman’s; A History of British Ferns, published in 1844.


The Victorians, poor & rich, went crazy for ferns & started to cultivate rare specimens & print fern motifs on to everything they could including wallpapers. It even inspired the pattern design on the Custard Cream.

The craze also gave women the freedom to go to Fernery’s and explore the countryside looking and foraging for ferns. Women were even allowed to organise dayout excursions into woodlands without a chaperone, this was because it was considered a wholesome, healthy & moral activity.

Cultivating ferns isn’t easy and the craze became expensive with people trying to get their hands on the rarest fern they could find. Aristocrats would sponsor scientific exhibitions to gather ferns from the West Indies, Panama and Honduras. This also created a crime wave of people stealing the rare specimens and selling them on the black market. Something that still happens to this day.