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Updated on January 5, 2010

Terrarium or Wardian Case

Terrariums are containers for plants, forgive me for being pedantic but they are not containers for reptiles those I believe should properly be called “vivariums” or maybe vivaria, I didn’t learn Latin at school. Of course you can put reptiles in a terrarium but then you’ve created a vivarium.

No doubt people have put plants into all sorts of containers for as long as both have been available, but the terrarium as we call it was invented or discovered by Doctor Nathaniel Ward in 1827 during some of his scientific research involving moth pupae which he had housed in glass jars. To his surprise he noticed that small mosses and ferns were growing in the jars and continued to do so for a number of years without any attention or any extra water being added. His further research into the phenomenon gave us the terrarium or Wardian case as they became known. They were very popular during the Victorian period as decorative displays for the home.

wall hanging terrarium
wall hanging terrarium

What is a Terrarium

So what is a terrarium? Strictly speaking it’s a closed self sustaining environment usually constructed from glass or nowadays plastic. The fact that it’s sealed means that you don’t have to water it as you would normally do with your house plants. The moisture given of by the plant leaves, and that which evaporates from the soil in the terrarium, condenses on the sides and roof of the container and runs back down into the soil. It can be quite tricky to get the balance between moist and dry right in a new terrarium, so it’s best not to seal it straight away but let the conditions settle first; after all using fresh soil or compost and watering the new plantings will probably mean the inside is too wet to start with so you need to let some of the excess moisture evaporate through the opening first.

Plants for you Terrarium

You will find all sorts of plants being recommended as suitable for terrariums including flowering varieties but it’s not a good idea to put flowering plants into a sealed container as the petals will fall and rot they should be okay though in a terrarium which you can easily open and remove dead leaves or petals from. Best to stick with slow growing plants like ferns and bromeliads. You can also include attractive rocks and it possible to create a very attractive landscape in miniature.

Make a Terrarium

You can buy terrariums from simple square or rectangular tanks, to elaborate stained glass creations. I made one based on a Geodesic Dome. You can try and make terrariums from all sort of containers, there was a fashion at one time for using large glass bottles or “carboys” though these sorts of containers are not always made from clear glass which would be best. And remember if you use an unusual shape container like some sort of bottle or jar you will need some special tools for planting; you can make your own from old spoons and forks tied to lengths of wood. Site your container where it will get good light but not strong sunlight. Happy miniature gardening.


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