Nature Watch: Dr. Nathanial Ward and his intriguing 'cases'


Last week's Third Thursday in downtown Pittsfield brought Susan and me out to experience the eclectic gathering of musicians, food mongers, nonprofit promoters, assortment of hand-made jewelry offerings and the like. The evening weather was a delight and those strolling North Street, jovial.

As we neared Park Square, near the old Berkshire Life building, we were drawn to South Street by loud music and thoughts of crossing over to visit "The Museum" briefly. We never got that far; Wardian Cases, displayed in the windows and outside of the enchanting Museum Facsimiles Outlet Store, on the corner of Bank Row, caught our attention immediately. And while I have seen such Victorian precursors of the modern day terrarium in museums, I was unaware that they were still manufactured and offered for sale.

We can thank the British, or at least one, a Dr. Nathaniel Ward, for its invention in 1829, and those unfamiliar with the term terrarium, think miniature glass greenhouse. And the British-of-means at the time were inclined to opulence, hence their miniature parlor greenhouses were as lavish as their extensive walk-ins capable of housing tropical palm trees.

The first such Wardian Case was born not out of affluence, but of necessity. Ward, a physician who maintained a practice in London, and an amateur botanist, loved to grown ferns in his yard. To his dismay, the ferns would not survive long because of the polluted air and probably "acid rain" from nearby coal plants and home heating.

While experimenting with raising caterpillars in glass (bell) hatching jars, he noticed seeds sprouting within the jars and flourishing in the humid conditions. This inspired him, and soon botanical collectors were using his glass cases to ship exotic plants on long sea voyages, safe from the salt air and radical temperature changes.

It has been said that before the Wardian Case, plant specimen survival on long ocean voyages was about 5 percent, and with his new idea, survival jumped to over 90 percent. In the early 1960s, while working next door at the Berkshire Museum, I made a simple 2-foot by 3- or 4-foot, four-sided Wardian Case with top and bottom, all of glass. Only by then, it was called a terrarium, allowing us to maintain delicate woodland ferns and flowering plants for several years in an otherwise very dry climate.

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