What’s a Wardian Case?

14 March 2024


14 March 2024


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

Wardian Case: Victorian glass houses used to transport plants over long distances, often for maritime use.  

The design of the Wardian Case created a regulated atmosphere, much like modern day terraria. This kept the plants within the cases healthy and hydrated, even over long periods of time.  

Wardian case planted with orchids.

The Wardian Cases were so efficient that the plants inside them only needed to be watered ONCE on a 6 to 9 week voyage to or from Australia! Fresh water was rationed on ships like the SS Great Britain. Watering the plants less often reduced costs and was time effective.

The case itself takes its name from its inventor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a London physician with a keen interest in the natural world. His proposal was a sealed system in which transpiration (the process of water movement through a plant) inside the case provides sufficient moisture to keep plants alive for extended periods. This system is termed a ‘terrarium’ today.

Before the Wardian Case, many plants were transported globally as seeds. At their destination, nurserymen would cultivate the seeds and attempt to grow them in a new climate, which could be temperamental. Most live plants would die at sea before reaching their destination. The invention of the Wardian Case boosted the survival rate of live specimens, acting as a catalyst for the global migration of plants.


With the increased survival rate of plants crossing the ocean, commercial plant traders and the ‘Plant Hunters’ they commissioned began using steamships like the SS Great Britain to travel across the globe to seek out exotic specimens to bring back to the UK. Many Victorians became obsessed with plants, resulting in a phenomenon coined, Pteridomania or ‘Fern-Mania’.

Our replica Wardian Cases are exact copies of a surviving Victorian Wardian Case held in the archive at Kew. Head over to Kew’s blog to discover more about the history of Wardian Cases.

Hear about Wardian Cases from our Victorian botanist 🎥

See the Wardian Cases

Step on board Brunel’s SS Great Britain to unearth the Australian roots of the English garden.
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