The magical miniature worlds of terrariums

Terrariums are experiencing a social media-fuelled revival, but as David Robson and Alessia Franco discover, there's far more to these tiny glass gardens than first appears.

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Scroll through the more pleasant corners of Instagram or TikTok, and you will soon come across beautiful images of miniature worlds encased in glass – tiny microcosms that are sealed from the rest of the world.

Close up, they look like the floor of a tropical rainforest, yet they are so small they can fit on the average bookcase. And when built with the right materials and species of plant, they can sustain themselves with no further maintenance for years – or potentially decades. "If they're properly sealed, you basically create a miniature ecosystem," says James Wong, the botanist, broadcaster and author, whose creations can be found at his @botanygeek Instagram account. The popularity of the terrarium has been growing for at least five years, he says. "It’s really exploded."

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Some may claim that this is simply a modern fad, a case of "hashtag horticulture" that lends itself to eye-catching posts. But terrariums have a long and fascinating history that predates social media by more than 150 years. And the resurgence today may have less to do with their photogenic properties than the sense of peace and calm that they provide, with many finding that the creation and maintenance of these miniature worlds offer a salve to the pressure and uncertainty of modern life.

The Wardian Case

The history of scientific discoveries is full of experiments that had taken another path from the planned route. Terrariums emerged from one such "accident".

The roots of the modern terrarium can be traced to a 19th Century experiment by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor who also studied botany and entomology.

Ward’s interest seems to have arisen from a journey to Jamaica as a 13-year-old boy, when he fell in love with the exotic plant life. Growing up, he developed a large collection of specimens, but he was disappointed to find that many species – particularly the ferns and mosses – failed to thrive in his east London garden, thanks, in large part, to the air pollution of the city. The UK was, after all, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, meaning that his house was "surrounded by, and enveloped in, the smoke of numerous manufacturies", which brought coal, ash and other toxic chemicals into contact with his precious plants.

The solution came in 1829 from one of Ward’s entomological experiments. He had been trying to hatch the chrysalis of a sphinx moth, buried in some moist mould within a covered bottle. The water, he noticed, would evaporate and then condense on the side, before returning to the mould – seemingly recreating the basic flow of the Earth’s weather systems. After a few days, Ward was surprised to find a tiny fern had begun to grow in the sealed ecosystem.

The glass microcosm provided the perfect way to control air quality and humidity, Ward realised, allowing species to flourish that had previously withered and died. He first wrote a short pamphlet, The Growth of Plants Without Open Exposure to the Air, which described his methods, and, in 1842, published a book on the subject, titled On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

The "Wardian Case" soon became something of an obsession for the British middle classes, who had found a way to reconnect with nature. They were not merely the interest of hobbyists, however, since they also allowed the long-distant transport of crops around the globe. Pests and rot had frequently ruined attempts to carry seeds across the ocean, while the salt spray and changing humidity had proven deadly for live specimens.

Ward’s invention – with its self-sustaining ecosystem – proved to be the perfect solution. "It was a key piece of industrial technology," says Wong. And its role in geopolitics should not be underestimated. "It’s one of the reasons why European powers could colonise the tropics." He points out that it allowed the transport of rubber trees to places like Malaysia, for example, where previous attempts had all failed – providing an industry to finance Britain’s expansion. The transport of tea, into the Himalayas, even helped to reduce Britain’s reliance on China after the Opium Wars.

Plant therapy

Terrariums clearly have a rich history. But what can explain their renewed popularity today?

One obvious reason is that, for many people living in apartments without gardens, they are often the only way to exercise green fingers. "If you've got a surface with a light socket, you can have a terrarium," says Wong. (For tips on starting your own, see "Terrariums in five steps

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