Arboretum Sargent Awardee traces the history of the Wardian Case

The first journey of a Wardian Case was an experiment. In 1829, the surgeon and amateur naturalist Nathanial Bagshaw Ward discovered—quite accidentally—that plants enclosed in airtight glass cases can survive for long periods without watering. Ward subsequently tested his case to transport live plants from England to Australia and back, and found great success. The Wardian Case, as it became known, revolutionized the movement of plants around the globe, and for more than a century aided the work of global plant explorers. The Case allowed a human facilitated movement of nature unprecedented in history, with significant commercial, industrial, and environmental consequences.

Through the study of botanical archives, my research seeks to understand how nature was moved and landscapes were transformed through the use of Wardian Cases. My investigation aimed at assessing not only the scale, movement and transfer of plants in Wardian Cases, but also investigating how they were utilized by networks of British, German, and North American scientists and the role these groups played in global transfers. I also sought to illuminate how the movement of nature was facilitated by both local knowledge and global interconnection. While a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation supported my archival research in London, Berlin and Singapore, the Sargent Award for Visiting Scholars at the Arnold Arboretum enabled me to bring the significance of North American scientists and horticulturalists into this global project. The extensive library and archival collections of the Arnold Arboretum provided a primary focus for this aspect of my study.

Historical photograph of a Wardian Case in use at the Dominica Botanic Garden, Roseau, 1932. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Investigations at the Arboretum transpired over two trips, in October 2015 and March 2016. I hoped that
historical accession records would reveal evidence of the Wardian Case as an important resource, but this was not the case. While the records at the Arnold Arboretum represent one of the oldest continuous sets of plant documentation in North America, they are very particular in detail. While precise in dates and locations of where incoming plants originated and where they were planted in the Arboretum landscape, the records do not note how plants arrived at the Arboretum, a key aspect of quantifying the use of the Wardian Case. While I discovered mention of Wardian Cases in correspondence—for example, the director of Kew Gardens mentions sending two Wardian Cases of rhododendrons to Charles Sprague Sargent in August 1873, only a year after the establishment of the institution—there is no mention of these Cases or any others arriving at the Arnold Arboretum. The reasons for this are numerous: woody plants are easier to transport as seeds and the climate of Boston required very hardy plants. Sargent preferred seeds and did not like the use of extravagant Wardian Cases. While I discovered few details of the Wardian Case, it actually provided an important turning point in my research, prompting greater focus on the networks of scientists who moved plants around North America and the globe.

Much of my time in the Arboretum Archives was devoted to investigating a two-part inquiry to understand the actions and aspirations of scientists and horticulturalists who utilized Wardian Cases. The first involved analyzing the correspondence between Wardian Case inventor Nathaniel Ward and famed Harvard botanist Asa Gray, which resides in the collection of the Harvard Botanical Library in Cambridge. Very little of Ward’s correspondence remains which makes this quite a valuable resource. The second part involved exploring Sargent’s extensive correspondence with scientists and plant collectors, which reveals an critical period in the environmental history of the United States related to plant introductions. Of particular importance is Sargent’s correspondence with Joseph Hooker, David Fairchild, Ellen Willmott, Harry Veitch, and Horace McFarland; as well as his correspondence with scientists in the field including Ernest Henry Wilson, Frank Meyer, Joseph Rock, and William Purdom.

As an early career researcher, the Sargent Award has been of enormous benefit in my work. Importantly,
by allowing me to spend more time in the United States it allowed me to extend the global focus of the project. Additionally, it offered me the opportunity to be part of the vibrant community at one of the United States’ greatest gardens. One of the great pleasures of working at the Arnold Arboretum was the close contact I was able to enjoy with its expert staff. As a historian, I am often surrounded by humanities scholars, but at the Arboretum I also worked closely with botanists, horticulturists, and ecologists. This diversity of experience and opinion in plants exploration and collection not only enriched the project but also helped me become a more rounded scholar.