Remembering Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)

Global Johnny Appleseed?

(One of an occasional series about unsung players in the world of plants)

If Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had been able to grow ferns in his garden, we might not enjoy bananas in our cereal today.

Dr. Ward was a 19th century physician who lived in East London. He spent his teen years in tropical Jamaica, where flambuoyant foliage there may have inspired his passion for plants.

Unfortunately Dr. Ward’s London garden was, instead, a study in shriveled blacks and grays, where even ferns were casualties to soot from volumes of smoke issuing from surrounding manufactories (his words).

The smoke from “manufactories” in London cannot be understated, even into the 20th century. 1926 newspaper photo. Credit: Creative Commons Wellcome Collection

We can readily imagine pea-soup fog enveloping Dr. Ward’s neighborhood when we read these lines in Tyler Whittle’s book, ‘The Plant Hunters’:

What is known is that Wellclose Square, that part of dockland where he lived, was a Sherlock Holmes sort of place; not exactly producing lepers, abominable lascars (foreign sailors), and wicked Chinamen, but giving that impression all the same.  And had Holmes and Watson been acquainted with their contemporary, Dr. Nathaniel Ward, undoubtedly they would have admired his scientific method of observing and deducing.

Dr. Ward was not a world traveler, but his discovery would ultimately fuel the mighty British Empire.

Lithograph, 1859, by Richard James Lane, National Portrait Gallery, London. Dr Ward would have been 68.

Intrepid botanists and gardeners had been navigating the globe since Columbus and coming home with exotic plants and animals. But there were big problems.

Listen now to what Carl Linnaeus, that great Swedish scientist who showed us how to classify plants and animals had to say:

Good God. When I consider the melancholy fate of so many of botany’s votaries, I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right mind who so desperately risk life and everything else through the love of collecting plants.

The HMS Endeavor, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, made a voyage to Australia and New Zealand from 1768 to 1771, more than half a century before Dr. Ward began his experiment.  Captain Cook, as he is commonly called, was the first to reach Australia. Naturalist Joseph Banks was on board.

If hunting plants was perilous for collectors, it was even more so for plants.

95 percent died en route. Only 5 percent survived in any condition to grow.

The year is 1829 and Dr. Ward is about to have a Eureka! moment. He has placed the chrysalis of a hawk moth in a tightly sealed glass jar with some soil. He notices that moisture condenses on the glass during the day, then returns to the soil in the cool of the evening, thus keeping the earth always in the same degree of humidity, he writes.

After a week he finds the beginnings of a fern and a blade of grass growing in the bottle. (Presumably, the moth is also doing well and will eventually fly off into the smog.)

How long, he wonders, can plants survive in a tightly sealed environment?

He intends to find out. He hires a carpenter to build two large glass cases with hardwood frames to resist decay and close glazing to create an airtight seal.

An example of what came to be known as the Wardian Case

By July 1833 they are ready for shipping. They are filled with native ferns and will spend six months at sea before they reach Australia.

The plants arrive in Sydney alive and thriving. They are ditched and the cases are refilled with plants from Australia. The return trip is storm-wracked and will take eight months.

In 1835 the plants arrive in England alive and thriving.

Percentages are reversed from 95 per cent loss to 95 percent survival.

Dr. Ward is ecstatic. Glass cases aboard ships are already common, but the tightly sealed environment, independent of surrounding conditions, is the breakthrough that changes plant exploration forever.

In 1842 Dr. Ward publishes the results of his experiments

The Wardian Case, as it comes to be known, can be as much as 4 feet long. It becomes a fixture on sailing ships.

Smaller versions become fixtures in middle-class Victorian homes. Now amateur gardeners can grow healthy ferns in their parlors in a controlled, humid environment, protected from rancid city air.

The Wardian Case, or terrarium, adapted to Victorian parlors

The Wardian Case becomes a household word – and incidentally precipitates massive excavation of native ferns from the countryside.

Dr. Ward, who will never profit from his invention, envisions the impoverished of London growing green, uncontaminated lettuce in window-box Wardian Cases.

Books arrive with directions for managing window gardens in the Wardian Case

But the Wardian Case, or terrarium, as it is called today, is destined for far greater arenas than tenement windows.

Covetous entrepreneurs, long on desire but short on morals, dream about profits in plants. British colonialism gallops into a new and prosperous era. If some shady deals are necessary — well, it’s all for the good of the empire.

For instance, take your everyday cup of tea. The British East India Company sent botanist Robert Fortune into China to learn as much as he could about Chinese tea that was produced deep  inland. Europeans were forbidden to explore much beyond port cities, but this did not stop Robert Fortune.

He disguised himself as a mandarin and trespassed on to forbidden land. He smuggled plants and seeds out  (in a Wardian Case). He stole ancient secrets closely held by the Chinese, complex techniques for  turning freshly picked camellia leaves into tea.  Soon English tea from plantations in India was eliminating the profitable tea trade in China.

Repeat that scenario, with variations,  for rubber plants stolen from Brazil and brought to India, where vast rubber plantations eventually broke Brazil’s monopoly and her economy.

Orchids, flowers, mangos, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa and vanilla bean plants are shipped to and survive in British colonies courtesy of the Wardian Case.

Tea Plantation in Ceylon, 1930’s. Shutterstock.

But malaria plagues life in the tropics and cuts deeply into profits. The Wardian Case brings relief.

The bark of the cinchona tree has an alkaloid that kills malaria parasites. In 1860 cinchona plants are smuggled out of South America into India. The bark is processed into quinine that is dissolved in tonic water. The last obstacle to expansion of the British empire falls.

Bark, flowers and seed from the cinchona tree. From a poster by M. VanHyll

Or — maybe the next-to-last obstacle. Doses of tonic to keep malaria at bay are bitter. The British soon discover that gin makes bitter tonic water pleasantly palatable, and gin and tonic presides over happy hour in the colonies. The last obstacle has fallen.

Exotic spices, flowers, and fruit find homes in kitchens and gardens worldwide. Rubber helps build the auto industry and provisions two World Wars.

Vast fortunes are made.  Great monopolies are created on the backs of slave labor. A mighty empire dominates the world. Global ecosystems are forever rearranged.

How would this epoch of plant-based power have played out without the introduction of the Wardian Case?

Next time you see a terrarium, or an aquarium (which is an upside-down terrarium), consider the shadowy 19th century figure who lived near the London docks and who never made a cent off an invention that changed the world in so many unpredictable ways: Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, Global Johnny Appleseed.

Orchids in a glass case, New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Kristine Paulus

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2 Responses to Remembering Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)

  1. Linda says:

    One learns something new every day…..or should try to. Hello Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. Would love to have one of the Wardian cases you have pictured!

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