The cultivation of plants in bottles or Wardian cases is a revival of a popular Victorian fashion which developed from the unexpected results of an experiment and subsequent research carried out by Dr. N. Ward early in the last century. I le was an ardent, but thwarted, gardener who yearned to grow ferns, but he was unsuccessful with them and assumed that this was due to the smoky atmosphere of the dock area in London where he lived.

He was also a keen naturalist and wishing to observe the emergence of a sphinx moth from a chrysalis, he buried one in some moist earth in a glass bottle with a metal lid. Some time later he noticed a seedling fern in the bottle. The fern thrived and was left in the bottle for over four years, until the lid rusted and the plant deteriorated.

Bottle gardens can provide a charming setting for a surprisingly large range of houseplants.

He noted that the moisture given oil by the leaves, also some rising from the damp soil which condensed on the inside of the glass, trickled down to the soil, so keeping the latter damp and the atmosphere within the glass at a constant degree of humidity.

He deduced that other plants would grow in similar conditions – a humid atmosphere and protection from dust or smoke as well as draughts, or extreme changes of temperature. Dr. Ward experimented with other bottle gardens and a wide range of plants and subsequently developed elaborate fern cases known as Wardian Cases, which became a feature of many Victorian drawing rooms.

Bottle gardens

The traditional bottle gardens with stoppered tops – so producing a closed and humid atmosphere – are well suited to growing moisture-loving plants such as ferns and small rushes with resilient and water-repelling leaf surfaces. However. many bottle gardens now sold are not of this traditional nature, and contain soft-leaved flowering plants which would soon be damaged in a totally closed environment. Bottles containing such plants are left unstoppered and therefore do not benefit from a re-circulatory wafer system. They are, therefore, jusl a method by which to display plants in an attractive manner.

The information given here refers to the stoppered and traditional type of bottle garden.

In a bottle with a narrow neck it is best to start with small, young plants of a type that will not crowd the container too quickly. Also it is important to select plants that will flourish in semi-shade and a moist atmosphere. Limit the choice to plants which are non-flowering and need very little attention.

Containers. The containers can be of a variety of shapes and sizes, from small flasks to large carboys. In fact, any rigid and transparent container can be used. Preferably the container should be of clear glass and free of decoration. The neck must be large enough to enable the plants and soil to be inserted. Glass containers are better than plastic, as drops of moisture adhere to plastic and tend to obscure the plants. Before starting to plant the container, wash it out and ensure that it is thoroughly clean and dry. Planting. First, using the funnel, cover the base of the container with a mixture of charcoal and pebbles. Its depth will, of course, depend on the size of the container – a large carboy needs 6.5cm (2jin). Then add a thin layer of peat, and enough compost to accommodate the roots of the plants.

The most dominant plant should be positioned near the centre, and to avoid introducing any insect pests into the bottle, shake each plant free of soil and inspect it carefully. Make a depression in the compost’s surface with the looped wire, and using the same tool lower the lirst plant, roots downwards, into the hole. Then cover the roots, using the same tool, and firm down. Repeat this operation until all the plants are arranged to your liking. Brush off any compost left on the foliage or the glass and then spray with tepid water from a fine syringe, using enough to wash the foliage and the sides of the glass. Then put in the stopper. It may take several hours for the moisture to seep through to the base and for the plants to transpire. If the atmosphere is humid enough to condense, then to roll down the glass leaving this clear, a balance has been achieved and this sequence will be repeated daily. However, it might be necessary to syringe

again the next day. If the atmosphere is saturated the plants will not flourish. In this case, the stopper should be left off to encourage evaporation until the correct balance is achieved and the bottle can then remain closed. The plants can remain in the bottle for several years. However, often one plant starts to dominate the bottle and pruning is required. If the plants do eventually resemble a jungle, replanting is the only action to take.

Selecting the plants. For the carboy, or larger bottle, any of the following ferns can be used: the maidenhair fern, delicate fan-shaped leaflets on wiry black leaf-stalks; small lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina ‘Minutissima’): the bladder fern (Cystop-teris bulbifera), well-divided fronds; the common polypody (Polypodium vulgare), a widespread native fern with blunt. undivided leaflets: and the well-known hart’s tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopen-drium), with tongue-shaped leaves. Some of the popular foliage houseplants can add considerable interest, even though some of them may need to be kept in check or removed after a year or so. The earth stars (cryptanthus) are charming subjects, and the aluminium plant (Piled cadierei ‘Nana’) can be quite striking. Fittonias also have delightful foliage and appreciate the humid atmosphere – but choose a small-leaved form. Two popular foliage plants that can be introduced provided you are willing to prune regularly are the creeping lig [Ficuspumila) and ivy (Hedera helix)-but use only small-leaved cultivars of ivy. It is even feasible to grow a palm in a large container! The parlour palm. Chamaedorea elegans (Neanthe bella), grows only slowly and can be potted up to grow on elsewhere once it becomes too large. For the smaller container the following

are admirable, but perhaps less well-known. Acorns gramineus ‘Pusillus’ is a small rush-like plant of rich green, growing 2.5-5cm (l-2in) high; Asplcnium trichomanes (maidenhair spleenwort) is an engaging little plant about 7.5cm (3in) tall sometimes found on old stone walls, but it also grows freely in a moist atmosphere; Blechmim penna-marina, about 5cm (2in) high, has a creeping rhizome which sends up, at intervals, fronds of very dark green with a wavy margin.

Selaijinellas, sometimes called moss ferns. although botanically they are neither, have the delicacy of the moss and a fernlike structure. There are several good kinds for bottle gardens, including S. apoda; (syn. S. apus) which has tiny fronds forming a 5cm (2in) hummock of brilliant green, S. palkscens (syn. S. cm-meliana). with erect fan-shaped fronds of ethereal beauty 15-25cm (6-10in) high (’Aurea’ is a golden form), S. martensii, has broader, lacy fronds. For the smaller bottle some of the mosses, can make an enchanting miniature landscape – with no expense, only the time needed to collect them.

Above right: If the atmosphere is too humid, remove the stopper to encourage excess moisture to evaporate more quickly. Right: When the correct moisture balance has been achieved and the glass remains clear, insert the stopper.

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