Inventing the terrarium: A story of British colonialism, invasive plant species and white privilege

Inventing the terrarium: A story of British colonialism, invasive plant species and white privilege

Terrariums have a dark history in British colonialism. When I researched who invented terrariums hoping to share some fun facts with you, I discovered this colonial legacy instead.

Revolutionizing the shipping of plants with the Wardian case:

Meet Dr. Nathaniel Ward, the inventor of the first terrarium in 1829. Ward discovered that you could seal plants inside a container without needing to air them out or worry about mold. He named the invention the Wardian case after himself.

Nathaniel Ward, inventor of the Wardian case

British colonialists quickly teamed up with Ward to ship plants overseas like never before. Previously, only seeds and dried plants would survive long voyages. This discovery led to big developments like the globalization of rubber which enabled modern transportation. It also devastated the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and people of colour.

The Wardian Case

One seemingly harmless example is the use of Wardian cases to ship Cavendish bananas- the prominent species in grocery stores today. Demand for this seedless variety fed and increased the demand for year-round fruits. The ability to ship live cash crops was very lucrative for the British and fuelled colonial efforts which spread invasive species worldwide.

Smuggling plants to advance colonialism:

Smugglers used Wardian cases to steal and transport tea plants from China, breaking its monopoly on the tea trade. The British used this method of smuggling to gain the economic advantage on many crops without regard for the people or ecosystems they were stealing from.

British colonialists transported masses of cheap rubber plants in Wardian cases back from Brazil to grow and trade. This destroyed a large part of Brazil's economy at the time and spread rubber as a resource across the globe.

Wardian cases were used to transport rubber and create modern transportationWardian cases were used to globalize rubber and create modern transportation.

Perhaps the most egregious use of the Wardian case was to smuggle cinconcha plants. British colonialists knew cinconcha was used to fight malaria and needed their own supply in order to expand into Africa, so they smuggled it out of South Africa in Wardian cases.

Pteridomania- a fern fascination:

Wardian cases sparked Pteridomania, a marked fascination with ferns in botany and art in Victorian society. Inspired by Ward, British ecologist Geroge Loddiges opened a large fern nursery. To draw people in to his business, he started a rumour that ferns were symbols of intelligence, vitality and social status. Soon after, his neighbour, Edward Newman, published A History of British Ferns, a popular book supporting Loddiges' claims.

Demand for Wardian cases and botanical art skyrocketed. Fern collectors took to the forests in droves, endangering some of Britain's native species. Ferns were even used to treat mental and physical ailments.

What does it mean for white hobbyists like me today?

Wardian cases remain popular home decor today, along with simpler bottle terrariums. The hobby is thriving and more accessible than before but its roots in colonialism endure.

I make my terrariums on Treaty 6 Territory and use plants and methods that exist because of colonization. My work today is part of the system of colonialism and its ongoing devastation whether I like it or not.

My desire and expectation of a happier story shows my white privilege. I shouldn't have been surprised that terrariums have roots in colonization but that's why it's important to keep learning and holding myself accountable.

Of course I can enjoy this hobby but I can't just ignore the bad parts when it's convenient for me. Listening to racialized communities, holding myself accountable and making reparations is the bare minimum and doesn't make me a "better" person or exempt from colonialism.

I donated $100 of my profits to the Prairie Sage Protectors after learning this as a form of reparations. I plan to host some fundraiser workshops, implement discounts for low-income and marginalized people, and donate more of my profits in the future.



'How a glass terrarium changed the world' by Jen Maylack, 2017.

'How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime' by Dimitra Nikolaidu, 2016.

'The Wardian Case and its Far-Reaching Effects' by Christopher Roosen, n.d.
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.