To be honest, I’m not a big fan of terrariums. These self-contained mini plant-scapes ooze artifice – particularly if, like many a gushing blogger – you insist on including a few plastic animals with your succulents for ‘extra cuteness’. Shudder.
Still, there’s no denying the terrarium trend and it seems any self-respecting fashionista is a ‘terrarist’ these days. In America, hip shops such as Anthropologie and West Elm have been peddling glass bubbles and domes for the past few years and, this spring, the UK branches of Anthropologie have joined in, too, selling sets of chic ‘terrarium tools’ for £48 and beautiful mouth-blown hanging glass teardrops for the princely sum of £1,128 – plus £110 for shipping. Ouch. Happily, if you’re determined to fill a vessel with moss that’s prone to mildew and itty bitty bits of cat litter for a special table centrepiece, then you can find all you need at an antiques fair. As any serious botanist will tell you, vintage forks and spoons tied to small bamboo canes are the best ‘terrarium tools’ while an antique glass fish bowl, apothecary jar, bell jar or cloche makes the perfect container for your teeny weeny display.
Keep your eyes peeled for rare Victorian ‘Wardian’ cases – the first terrariums, invented by London physician Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in the early 1800s. He was experimenting with moth cocoons in sealed glass flasks when he discovered tiny plants growing in the soil inside the containers. At this time, thanks to the industrial revolution, London’s air was a smog-filled toxic soup of coal smoke and pollutants and Dr. Ward had always tried – and failed – to keep ferns alive in his garden. He soon realised that plants not only survived but actually thrived inside glass containers, creating their own mini eco-systems and requiring little watering thanks to condensation. His invention changed the world in many ways as scientists could safely ship live plant specimens across the globe and Wardian cases soon graced the drawing rooms of fashionable Victorians, filled with ferns and tropical orchids.
Despite my aversion to terrariums, I’m still inexplicably drawn to bell jars, and have a nice collection (much to my husband’s chagrin, who complains our bedroom looks ‘like the Natural History Museum’). I fill them with dried hydrangeas – dead plants are so much easier to manage…