The first journey of a Wardian case was an experiment. In 1829, the surgeon and amateur naturalist Nathanial Bagshaw Ward accidentally discovered that plants enclosed in airtight glass cases can survive for long periods without watering. Four years later he decided to test his invention by transporting two of his cases filled with a selection of ferns, mosses and grasses from London to Sydney, the longest sea journey then known.
On November 23 1833, Ward received a letter from Charles Mallard, the ship captain responsible for the two cases, telling him: “your experiment for the preservation of plants alive … has fully succeeded”.
The next challenge was the return journey. In February 1834, the cases were replanted with specimens from Australia. Eight months later, when Ward and friend George Loddiges, a well-known nurseryman, went aboard the ship in London they inspected the healthy fronds of a delicate coral fern (Gleichenia microphylla), an Australian plant never before seen in Britain. The experiment was a success.
The Wardian case, as it would become known, revolutionised the movement of live plants around the globe. They were shaped like a miniature greenhouse, made of timber and had glass inserts in the roof. In the cases, plants had a greater chance of survival when in transit.
Often thought of as only a product of the gardening crazes of the Victorian era, the Wardian case was actually a notorious prime mover of plants. Some of the key uses of the case include moving tea from China to India to lay the foundations of the Assam and Darjeeling tea districts; helping move rubber from Brazil and transporting it via London to Asia, which is now the leading producer of the crop; and repeatedly moving bananas over many decades to the Pacific Islands, Central America and the Caribbean.
The Wardian case resolved a major bottleneck in the transport of live plant species, but it also had major consequences for environmental relationships in the 19th and 20th centuries.
An untold story
Botanists and horticulturalists used this simple box for over a century to carry hundreds of thousands of plants around the globe, whether they were in England or the United States, France or India, Russia or Japan. The Australian story of the Wardian case is an important and untold one.
Each state has an important connection to it. New South Wales received the first plants from Ward himself. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, sent its first Wardian cases, full of fruit trees and ornamental plants, to Western Australia. The Adelaide Botanic Gardens even had a path lined with Wardian cases. Tasmania was vital in the 19th-century fern trade. And Queensland used the Wardian case to transport the cactoblastis moth to help solve the prickly pear infestation.
Victoria’s connection to the case is unsurprisingly one of gardeners and ornamental plants. Today, Victoria is home to Australia’s largest nursery industry, by some reports worth more than $1.6 billion annually and employing more than 11,000 people. The industry today cannot be separated from the long global history of moving beautiful and useful plants to Australia more than a century ago. Two examples illuminate the thriving early trade in Victoria.
Published in 1855, Charles Mackay’s widely circulated poem The Primrose was about the landing in Melbourne of a beautiful rare flower and the procession from the docks to an exhibition location in the city. It read, in part:
“She has cross’d the stormy ocean/A pilgrim, to our shore/As fresh as Youth and Beauty/And dear as days of yore.”
By some reports, more than 3,000 people turned out to see the floral traveller. Police were called in to restore order to Melbourne’s streets during the procession. News of the fanfare was carried in major international newspapers including Harper’s Weekly and the Illustrated London News.
The British artist Edward Hopley painted the scene, A Primrose from England (1855), to memorialise both the moment of the plant arriving in Melbourne and, in typical Hopley style, the social milieu of the period.
The technology for moving the plant was not lost on either artist. The primrose that Mackay so eloquently lyricised and Hopley so captivatingly brought to life arrived in Melbourne in a specially designed Wardian case. It would not have arrived without this technology for moving plants. It was not just the primrose. In the decades following 1858, the Wardian case played a major role in shaping the aesthetics and species available in the Victorian landscape.
In early April 1862, three decades after Ward’s invention, the well-known Victorian nurseryman Thomas Lang delivered a lecture to the Ballarat Horticultural society titled “On Wardian, or Plant Cases”. Lang began by describing his first encounter with the cases in Edinburgh. He went on to detail the many useful plants, such as the giant Californian redwood, that he had introduced with the help of the case. By his own estimate, Lang transported nearly a million plants to Victoria in just one decade in the late 19th century, a staggering number by just one nurseryman.
Now living in regional Victoria, after many years of travel researching a book on the Wardian case, I often think about Lang and the enthusiasm colonists had for bringing over beautiful plants. Lang proclaimed in his lecture of 1862: “The comfort, the pleasures, the commercial interests, the happiness of mankind are promoted by the use of Wardian cases.”
To move beautiful ornamental plants here was very much part of the home-making process for colonists.
But it was always a trade. While beautiful plants came into Australia, many useful ones went out. Often we forget that the beauty of our gardens is as much about moving plants, as it is about the hard work of tilling the soil.
Next time your hands are covered in soil, it might be good to wonder where that camellia or fuchsia or rose or apple or kiwi fruit or lemon originated – chances are it travelled in a Wardian case.
Luke Keogh’s book The Wardian Case will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press. He delivers the Redmond Barry Fellowship Presentation at the University of Melbourne on July 25 2018.
As companies move to get rid of single-use plastic bags and bans on microbeads are coming into force, new biodegradable or compostable plastic products seem to offer an alternative. But they may be no better for the environment.
Recently, European scientists argued that existing international industry standards are insufficient and cannot realistically predict the biodegradability of compostable plastics. New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), Simon Upton, weighed into the debate, questioning the merit of biodegradable plastics and urging the New Zealand government to deal with the confusion surrounding their labelling.
The key concerns include the terminology itself, the lack of appropriate recycling or composting infrastructure and toxicity of degradable plastics.
Confusion over terms
We know that plastics hang around in the environment for a very long time.
Recent surveys show significant support among New Zealanders for initiatives to reduce single-use plastics.
Newly marketed single-use plastics that claim to be biodegradable suggest that they will break down quickly into benign end products, but the reality is more complex. A degradable or compostable plastic item may indeed deteriorate slightly faster than a conventional product, but only if the conditions are right.
The current industry standards are not taking into account real-life conditions and are therefore underestimating the breakdown times. The standards are also not accounting for the damage to marine life that ingest breakdown particles before a product is completely degraded.
The PCE highlights that biodegradation should not be confused with other natural processes, such as weathering. For a plastic polymer to biodegrade, it needs to be broken down through the action of living cells (mostly fungi and bacteria) into simple chemical elements.
However, as the graphic below shows, the speed of biodegradation can vary greatly, depending on the original material and whether the plastic ends up in a commercial composting facility or a backyard compost heap or the ocean. Differences in materials, labelling and capabilities of composting facilities are making it difficult for the system to function properly.
Avoidance is best
Considering the New Zealand government’s intention to transition to a low-carbon economy and zero waste initiatives, the best answer to the problem is avoidance. Under the premise of convenience, we got used to a bag for everything, a plastic sleeve for a single slice of cheese or teabag, and a single-use plastic bottle for water. The production of all these containers contributes to carbon emissions as well as the later disposal.
In many cases, biodegradable plastic bags are made from crude oil, requiring carbon-based production processes and emitting carbon dioxide or methane when degrading. If we switch to no extra packaging, reusable containers made from metals or ceramics, and buy in bulk, then crude oil and gas can stay in the ground for a potential safe use by future generations.
Failing this, a second best option are products made from renewable materials. Here and in general, we have to insist on meaningful labelling with a clear pathway to deposition or recycling.
Many degradable plastics include additives, designed to make the product less durable. At the moment, the various additives and fillers are leading to contamination of waste streams. Expensive sorting or subsequent landfill might be the only alternative. Adequate recycling or re-manufacturing facilities would need to be created in New Zealand.
In his letter to Eugenie Sage, the associate minister for the environment, the PCE also refers to toxicity of plastics. More independent research is required in this area and the principle of caution should be applied in the meantime. In this day and age, there is no need to release a new material into general circulation, where the harmlessness is not investigated beyond doubt.
In some cases, a material may be banned in Europe but still readily available in the United States and Australasia. One example is BPA (bisphenol-A), which was banned in parts of Europe and some US states, but Australia announced a voluntary phase-out in baby bottles.
The banning of cosmetic products containing microbeads is another case in point. In the last few years, some countries, including the US, UK, France, Canada, Taiwan and Sweden, have proposed or implemented microbead bans. The US ban on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics has been in place since July 2017, but while the Australian government endorsed a voluntary phase-out in 2016, there is no official ban. New Zealand implement its ban this June.
The way forward
Consumer action and demand is a good start, with more and more of us changing our behaviour, leading by example, and asking industry to do likewise. A robust debate led by independent scientist should inform the public and authorities. Experiences like the ban of CFCs in the 1990s and New Zealand’s ban of microbeads are revealing to be ultimately successful. But they require regulatory intervention.
This can take the form of a ban of single-use plastics, which many countries have decided to exercise. Strengthening the standards framework is also required. At the moment, there is no overarching approach. Degradation in public waste facilities, in composting plants or in the sea is considered separately, as is toxicity.
A material should be assessed fully in all relevant environments and then appropriately labelled. The New Zealand government should work with industry towards product stewardship, where the whole product life cycle is taken into account in the design phase. This will bring us closer to a circular economy, in which we reuse and recycle far more products.