SS Great Britain to showcase Wardian cases at RHS Festival 

17 June 2024


17 June 2024


At this year’s RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, Brunel’s SS Great Britain will be showcasing the ship’s horticultural history in a fascinating floral exhibition.  

A fascinating exhibition from the iconic Bristol-built ship sheds new light on the role of steamships in transoceanic plant hunting.

In the Victorian era, the iconic steamship became a floating garden, transporting rare plant species between Britain and Australia in Wardian cases. These mini glass houses were early types of terraria, and their protective capabilities enabled plants to survive long and arduous voyages.  

The SS Great Britain Trust will be displaying two Wardian cases at the Festival.

Originally, shipping companies had tried to transport plants overseas using traditional greenhouses – but these would often smash during storms. The creation of the Wardian case transformed plant migration overnight. Resistant to salt spray and able to maintain temperatures, the vessels allowed plants to survive for months at sea with very little watering required.   

The SS Great Britain Trust will be displaying two Wardian cases at the RHS Garden Festival, which is taking place from 2 to 7 July 2024. The Wardian cases will celebrate the inbound and outbound plant species carried by the ship between 1859 and 1875. Museum staff have created the display with RHS Gold Medal winning garden designer Jane Porter, in line with new research conducted by the charity’s Brunel Institute.  

In its day, the SS Great Britain was the fastest way to travel to Australia and many nursery owners, plant-hunters and botanists relied on the ship to carry their precious cargo. The Victorians had a love-affair with ferns (often referred to as ‘fern fever’) and the ship imported many species, including antipodean ferns and tree ferns, to collectors in Britain. 

The SS Great Britain also brought rare Australian orchids to British shores. These could sell for up to £300, equivalent to £25,000 in today’s money. 

On outbound trips to Australia, the cases carried roses, rhododendrons, and even the invasive bramble to sell to people who had emigrated to Australia and were hoping to recreate their English gardens and hedgerows.  

Iona Keen, Head of Interpretation at Brunel’s SS Great Britain, said: “We can’t wait to share the story of the SS Great Britain’s horticultural history at RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival.  

“Many of the once exotic plants now commonly found in the UK are here thanks to steamships like the SS Great Britain, and we hope visitors to the Festival enjoy learning more about the vital role of steamships in global plant migration.”  

Visitors to RHS Hampton Court Palace will be able to view the Wardian cases in the Festival’s legendary floral marquee. 

RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival

The Festival takes place from 2-7 July 2024. Visit the RHS website for more information and tickets.
View RHS website

What is a Wardian case?

Plants are taking over the SS Great Britain as it transforms into a floating garden, but what are Wardian cases?
Read blog