This month we’re celebrating glass and plants. Think geometric terrariums, elegant domes and bells, bottle gardens big and small, and delicate hanging globes.
The history of house plants in Britain is completely intertwined with glass, where style and functionality have combined for more than a century.
In 1842, Nathanial Ward published his book ‘On the Growing of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases’ which proved that plants could survive and thrive without air. It was a means for intrepid plant hunters of the day to return their bounty to Europe protected and in good health. And from this the Wardian Case was born.
Wardian cases were all the rage in Victorian homes and by 1950s, Juliana Crow was calling for a revival: ‘An inelegant tank full of fidgeting fish is not regarded as an eyesore, and a case of plants would be infinitely more beautiful and infinitely less trouble to care for.’
Of course glass cases had the additional benefit of protecting plants from the smoke, gas and smog-filled air that even indoor plants had to contend with in those days.
A cheap supply of glass and metal combined with the Victorian craze for ‘hot-house exotics’ also resulted in an explosion of greenhouses and conservatories. In the mid to late 19th century the English were building more glasshouses than any other country in the world. They became, as Jones and Clark put it, ‘a mark of elegance and a necessity for maintaining the prestige of the rising middle classes.’
As large numbers of people started to move to cities, often to flats without outdoor space, an interest in window gardening was sparked. TW Sanders in 1910 even gave detailed instructions on how to construct a mini greenhouse for your windowsill. Residents could continue to enjoy gardening while maximising space and improving views inside, and bringing colour to the city streets outside.
The introduction of electric lighting and then central heating rid homes of the old fumes of gas lamps and fireplaces, and increased the flexibility of what could be grown indoors. However, there were drawbacks: dry air and excessive evaporation. This ‘domestic glasshouse’ with access from the living room, might have offered a solution for some:
For others, glass cases were reintroduced to living rooms, this time making use of everyday objects on offer: goldfish bowls, jugs, sweet jars, bottles. As well as conserving moisture, the glass protected the plants from dust, pests and draughts.
In 1977 we are reminded of the aesthetic appeal of the popular bottle gardens: ‘the glass makes the plants look larger than life and the whole scene within the bottle takes on a slightly mysterious and jungly appearance.’ Low-growing and slow-growing plants were the secrets to success.
My first encounter of plants in glass was my mum’s bulbous green bottle garden in the 1980s, which I had to dust along with the black Dansk furniture. I still get a pang of nostalgia whenever I see one.
A visit to Urban Jungle Bloggers this month reminds us what a classy combination glass and plants make. But it’s not only beautiful – glass has played a very practical part in house plant history and fashion.