Friday, October 22, 2021

The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World

I sent a long letter about Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to my cell biologist friend, who suggested I write an article for a magazine. At the very least, I thought, I should write something fern-related for this very-neglected blog!  So this is a book report of sorts, of this FANTASTIC book by Luke Keogh:


This is the first whole book that features N.B. Ward, inventor of Wardian Cases. Mr. Keogh has done a tremendous job of research. Prior to this book, the only mention I could find of Mr. Ward was in a smattering of gardening websites as the inventor of the terrarium—which is true, but he was SO much more. That was the indoor Wardian case, which had its own influence, but the outdoor Wardian case was used for over a century to transport plants on ships around the planet. 

Ad for indoor Wardian case (not as ornate as some):

Fancier versions:

Readers of The Fern World will already be familiar with Mr. Ward because he meets Fernie and ends up sending her a Wardian case in Chapters 6 & 7. At the time I wrote that, I hadn't quite made the distinction between the sturdy, seafaring Wardian cases and the decorative Wardian cases for indoor refinement

Here's an excerpt of from The Fern World, based on Mr. Ward's own account from his book, On The Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

Nellie had been right in her assessment of Mr. Ward. Fernie could perceive why he and Papa were friends and she was glad. He was jolly and she was delighted to have made his acquaintance. It would be just a bit of time before Mr. Ward was to reveal the invention of his famous case that did, indeed, grow ferns. However, it was inspired by his interest in a Sphinx moth “cocoon” and not ferns. Ferns, it would turn out, were a very happy accident that would go on to inspire the import of plants from around the world! Tea plants made their way from one region of India to Ceylon, bananas came all the way from China to the tropics, and rubber trees would make their journey to far-off places. Indeed, it is much thanks to Mr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward for his Wardian cases, that we have such a world that we can house tropical plants indoors; including many species of ferns.

 He was a doctor and amateur botanist. When he was 13, he expressed an interest to his doctor-father about wanting to study plants and his father put him on a boat to the West Indies to cure him of this ridiculous notion. As you did, back in those days. Ha! He never lost his love for botany, but he dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor and inherited his practice, located in smoggy, coal-choked London near the docks. He treated all kinds of patients, and spent his days rising early and botanizing before seeing patients.

More than medicine or botany, he was interested in all things scientific and of the “natural” world. He founded the Microscopical Society in 1839 with Natural History publisher John van Voorst. He also was a member of the Apothecary Society at Chelsea Physic Garden. All doctors at the time had to understand botany and the medicinal properties of plants. (Imagine that!) So his work as a doctor was not too far removed from botany. He oversaw examinations for medical students for many years. He also was instrumental in getting the society/garden to admit women, which was outrageous and deliciously radical for the day!

The first experiment with the Wardian case was in 1829 with plants sent from London to Australia, which only took 6 months. Ha! And the plants survived, and Australia reciprocated with some native ferns and other exciting plants. And the people who took notice were . . . botanists, gardeners and nurseries. That started a lucrative, exotic plants trade.

As a physician, he testified and worked to repeal the British glass tax and said that lack of light had a negative health effect on the poor, who were stuck in dark, dank houses. He was successful, and that brought literal LIGHT to homes and buildings everywhere. It also ushered in the building of more greenhouses, window garden units, as well as indoor Wardian cases (terrariums for ferns). 

Mr. Keogh has filled in so many gaps about N.B. Ward, especially regarding the impact his invention had on the world. The Wardian case broke the monopoly China had on tea and Brazil had on rubber. Botanical espionage and Wardian cases snuck out of both those countries to make their way to India to create plantations that exist to this day. It changed our farming practices and encouraged botanical gardens, and changed our diets. Tea, coffee, bananas all became cheaper and more accessible. On the downside, it encouraged economic incentives for colonial plantations, and the spread of invasive species (pestilence, vermin, and plant). "Exotic" mimosa trees from China and Kudzu from Japan are a nuisance 100+ years later. Personally, I love mimosa trees! And Kudzu is actually where arrowroot powder comes from.

From all accounts I have read in primary sources from the time, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was a congenial, kind, generous and humble man who genuinely cared for his patients, friends, family and colleagues. He maintained friendships and connections with other scientists in his native Great Britain, as well as around the world (America, Australia, India, etc.)  He was a member of several societies, regularly holding weekly soirees with eminent scientists of the day, and was supportive and encouraging of other’s ideas and work. A letter to Darwin from A.R. Wallace said something like, “I spoke with a Mr. Ward and he suggested . . . .” So far I’ve not found any letters from Darwin to NBW, but I do know that he was one of the sciencey people that Darwin sent his Origin book to when the third edition was printed.

I'll have more on NBW in another post in which I share his letters and personal writings. I read on one website that "not much is known about Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward." Thanks to the hard work of Luke Keogh, this unknown scientist is better known!

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Fernery

Now I am hesitating to post this, because it's not a Fernie's World story!  But I wanted to share some photos I took at a local university greenhouse. I'll spare you the PROPER botanical names--mostly so I don't have to look them up right now! So without further ado, behold!  I give you ferns!

Spores on the underside. 

And a coupla non-ferns:
Rubber tree plant. It was because of Wardian cases that rubber became abundant in the
British Empire. It's also what helped to win WWII; all thanks to Dr. Nathanial Bagshaw Ward.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Seaside Stroll in Reculver

To Mrs. Frederick FitzWilliam
FitzWilliam Hall

10 July,
Reculver, Kent*

Dearest Catherine,

Thank you for your kind introduction to Mrs. Frande. It was a delightful afternoon in which to sample such tea and delicacies, in addition to entertaining company!  I have written a letter of appreciation to Mrs. Frande and hope I may join you on our returning visit en route back to London. We arrived safely to Kent and have traveled to Reculver, of all places!  You might wonder as to what would bring us to such a place, but Mr. Ward has a friend, Mr. Bosworth, with an extreme interest in archeology. He is residing in a little cottage for the summer, whilst we stayed comfortably at the local inn.

Doubtless I need apprise you of wind or water of the place! Our journey was largely uneventful, and I did gaze upon the beauty of the Twin Sisters of St. Mary’s (Reculver Church) on the cliff, as we made our way upward toward our final destination. The church still stands after the demolition, which now appears rather imprudent. The expectation that those gentlemen had of it falling to the sea has not been met. I suspect they were rather hasty in their use of gunpowder. Indeed, I remarked to Mr. Ward, “Could the gunpowder have not been put to better use with something else?” He only laughed and said he could not explain why it held such fascination with certain members of his sex.
Demolition of Reculver Church, 1809

Mr. Bosworth has been a most gracious host!  There is no Mrs. Bosworth, and I have been happy for the invitation in accompanying the gentlemen on their explorations of Roman ruins. Mr. Bosworth has a growing collection of coins and pots and all manner of Roman things—which he calls artifacts, because they are historic in nature. At the next opportunity, I shall remember to call some article of Mr. Ward’s clothing that has outlived its usefulness an “artifact.”

To-morrow Mr. Bosworth has business on the Isle of Sheppey for the day. I suggested to Mr. Ward that we venture down to the seaside for a leisurely walk and perhaps we shall take some refreshments.  The prospects from the church are beautiful indeed, but I am eager to gaze upon the sea from its shore, as well.  So I shall leave you here and write again soon,

Yours &c,


To: Mr. Frederick FitzWilliam
FitzWilliam Hall

11 July,
Reculver, Kent

My Dear Sir,

My sincere thanks for your generous hospitality.  I spoke to you of the possibility of meeting George Bosworth and indeed, here we are!  Charlotte has been ever cheerful and joined the party on many expeditions and made a fine joke to me about the gunpowder used to employ the demolition of Reculver Church. Is there a manner of explanation to the fairer sex about its usefulness and importance that could entice her to believe that they are either?  I think not.

We have visited a few Roman sites and have found several artifacts of coins and pottery, which I shall show you on our return visit. The weather has been pleasant enough and we have enjoyed our stay heretofore. To-day, however, held an unwelcome--although in retrospect, not wholly unexpected, discovery. We have thus far limited our excursions to the village and surrounds, high above the shore, but as George was traveling to the Isle of Sheppey on a manner of business, we decided to make our way down to the sea. Charlotte in particular, was eager for a walk. Mr. Bosworth had noted that this was where we might discover some fossils, and I was interested in perhaps finding something of Nature instead of something of Roman in nature. Indeed, I found all manner of fossils strewn loose about the shore, my first being a Striatolamia [sand tiger shark tooth]. Charlotte found a collection of Arctica bivalve shells not three minutes into our walk. She has a particularly keen awareness and the eye of a falcon when it comes to spotting small objects of interest. We walked along the shore and made our way in the direction of Reculver Church. It was not directly in our path, and we were not in any particular hurry to go in that direction with any want of a preconceived destination. We stopped to catalogue our finds and store them safely. By and by we had a pleasant meal accompanied by some libations and soon continued down the shore. I had noted the various striations of earth that make up the cliff. As I was pointing out the difference in the London Clay and Harwich Formation, there looked to be part of a coffin exposed. I was earnest in my attempt to shield Charlotte from the knowledge of the particulars, but she is too quick-witted and surmised immediately upon what we were gazing.

“Oh, my dear!” she exclaimed. “Is that?  Could it be? Oh, but it is!  Oh, dear!” 

She said it all in one breath and stood staring and stupefied as she was then struck speechless. I could not deny or attempt to avert her eyes in a different direction. I remained calm, as a gentleman must in these sort of situations and I said, “Yes, the forces of Nature give not one whit for us mortals.”  Apparently this was not the correct thing to say for she was able to recover her manner of speech and said, “Oh, Mister Ward! We mustn’t make a joke at the expense of the departed!  For this was someone’s . . . mother, or father, or-or-or someone!”

I did not induce her to feel comfort as I said, “I should think that given the age of it, there would not be any family alive to see this particular . . . person, whomever it is.”  She looked upon me as only that intimate partner can upon her own husband and I felt the nature of my further faux pas immediately.

“My dear, my deepest apologies,” I hastened to reply. “Let us take no more time in this place but return toward the inn, that we may come away from such unpleasantness.”

She took my arm, and thus we began to make our way back toward the main road. She was deep in thought, and averted her eyes toward the ground, which I thought most prudent. We were able to pass thither by yet another coffin that was exposed and had gone unnoticed beforehand. It was indeed fortunate because this particular coffin had a hole in it and I could see some bones of an exposed skeleton within!

As I was thinking thusly of this good fortune that she was looking down and not up, she stopped and said, “Nathanial!  I can’t bare this! It is too much to be borne!”  And there I looked down where she pointed to some bones on the ground. It was at this moment that I saw that the skeleton for which I had believed to be completely intact overhead, had some part of it fallen down below. Indeed, it was then that we both began to see many bones everywhere. Gone were the fossils, replaced by these remains.

It was a rather gruesome day and I think it shall be a long time before we take another walk along any foreshore below a cliff!  Enclosed find a drawing of one of Mr. Bosworth’s Paleolithic findings and you shall inspect the Roman artifact in person when next we meet. Until then,

I remain yours &c.


To: Mrs. Frederick FitzWilliam
FitzWilliam Hall

13 July,

Dear Catherine,
To-day is raining and I relayed to Mr. Ward that I shall remain indoors whilst he and Mr. Bosworth go on another expedition. I confess that I am happy for the respite given yesterday’s unfortunate event. I doubt very much that we will take a second trip down to the foreshore given a rather gruesome discovery. It is true, the accounts of finding not only fossils but the remains of other things . . . .

Yours &c.

-         - - - - - - - -

Papa and Mama sat in their respective chairs in the drawing room reading their letters after their evening meal. Papa finished his letter first and lit his pipe, glancing over at his wife. He made note of her furrowed brow and reasoned that she was reading Mrs. Ward’s recounting of her seaside stroll. She let out a sigh and folded the letter, placing it back on a tray.

Papa said, “I take it you read about—“

“Yes,” came Mama’s swift reply.

What news! What horror!  But then she smiled slightly and looked at Papa. “I am very grateful that I am not obliged to accompany you on your excursions.”

Papa smiled in return. “Indeed, my dear. You are far too delicate to tolerate the coarseness of such events. I would not wish you to be other than you are.” He reached over and gave her familiar pat on her hand.

Mama blushed at such a compliment. “Oh, Mister FitzWilliam,” she said, and rose to retire for the evening. He took a final puff of his pipe, extinguished it, and rose to follow.

*To see more of the history of Reculver, click HERE.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


I am presently working on a story incorporating Reculver Church. It is an area of geography that has had the grave misfortune of severe land loss due to the sea. Here it is in 1781:

From an illustration in a geology book in 1909:

 Alas!  Illustration of its willful destruction in 1809:

 And here it is, present day:
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
For more information fossils, check out Discovering Fossils UK.

All images are in the Public Domain. Feel free to use for personal or commercial projects! 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Chapter 10: The Spoon

CHAPTER 10: The Spoon

Fernie felt the tension before she fully entered the kitchen. She stayed back and peeked around the corner. Cook was staring hard at the new girl.

“Mrs. MacMillan you must believe me! I didn’t take it, honest I didn’t!”

Cook said, “It was after Mrs. Fitzwilliam’s tea and you were the one that did the clearing.”

The girl burst into tears. “But I didn’t!  You must believe me!”

Cook looked at the scared girl and her face softened. She said more gently, “Is it possible you coulda dropped it on the way?”

The girl shook her head violently. “No, I woulda heard it. And I looked! I looked everywhere!  It is nowhere to be found!”  And she sobbed anew, burying her face into her apron.

“I believe you,” said Cook.

The girl’s sobbing turned into hiccoughs and she looked up at Cook. “You do?”  But her relief she felt was short-lived.

I do,” said Cook. “But that doesn’t matter when Mrs Fitzwilliam doesn’t and says there is no place for a thief in this house.”

“Thief?!” and in between hiccoughs she said, “But hiccough you can hiccough search my hiccough things! hiccough You hiccough will not hiccough find it!”  She had hope still that she would be exonerated.

“Believe me,” said Cook. “They already did.”

The hiccoughing returned to wailing. Was she to be sent to prison or a work camp or the poor house?!

“But where shall I go?  I’ve nowhere!  And who will take me now?!”  She dragged the “now” out in a moaning wail that bounced against the kitchen walls.

Cook raised her eyes to the ceiling and muttered, “Lord, gimme patience.”

She put her hands on the girl’s shoulders firmly. “Calm yourself!” she said rather forcefully, which Fernie reflected later, was not at all calming!

“All is not lost.  You are right in assuming that there will be no recommendation from the House. However, since they’ve not found it amongst your belongings, you are free to go. Others would not be so lenient.”

Nellie had only just recounted the story of how one of Lady Constance’s servants had recently been sent off for just such an occurrence! While it was indeed unfortunate to lose her means of paltry income and housing, it was not so unfair as to be unjustly accused and punished for a crime she didn’t commit. But still, she was to pack her things and leave immediately. Where would she go?  She had only just traveled here a few months ago. She knew no one outside the House. But at least she was free.

Cook sat down and wrote a hasty note. “When you go, take this to Mrs. O’Brien. Perhaps she can be of help to you.”

The girl took the note that she could not read, and said, “Thank you.”

Cook said to her, “God be with you, my dear.” 

The girl was dismissed to pack her meager belongings and Fernie knew that this was the recommendation Cook said the girl could not have.

Fernie entered the kitchen after the girl had gone up the back stairs. Cook must think well of her to send her to Mrs. O’Brien, she thought. She had her field satchel and carried it in with her.

“Well now, Fernie Girl!” Cook said brightly. “Off for a jaunt?  Lemme just get some tea and biscuits for your outing.”

Fernie smiled. “Thank you, Cook.” 

She sat down at the table and watched as Cook busied herself clanging pots and moving things about. Cook sighed. She felt sorry for the girl, but knew that her friend would help her. In the meantime, she was happy that this little incident was behind her and she could go back to her work.

“Here’s your tea, Miss Fernie,” she said.

All would be well.