Dr Ward and the case of the globe-trotting plants…

The wealth of some of the 19th century powers can be traced to a piece of botanical equipment.

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The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World, by Luke Keogh, 2020. University of Chicago Press.

Cover of the Wardian Case by Luke Keogh

The Wardian Case by Luke Keogh [which book is here appraised] does what its sub-title claims and tells the extraordinary tale of “how a simple box moved plants and changed the world”. This is an important book that’s well worth a read – whether your interests are in plants, plant-people, plants-and-people, technological innovation, exploration, geography, colonialization, empire, botanical piracy, or all of those combined.

From the 15th to the 18th centuries, sea-going voyages of the so-called Age of Discovery (or Exploration) – primarily made by countries such as Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain – opened up the world by visiting countries previously unknown to Europeans. In reaching those far-flung, exotic, and frequently tropical, lands the intrepid travellers experienced new plants (and animals and cultures, etc., but the focus here is on the botanical component). Indeed, some of those voyages deliberately set out to find the fabled Spice Islands to secure a source of spices – “a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring [sic.] or coloring [sic.] food” – for the nation funding the voyage. In that way, these highly-prized – and expensive – ‘flavourings’ could be shipped directly to the mother country. Not only would this cut-out expensive spice-vending middle-men, but ideally would also lead to a monopoly over their supply – and sale! – to other nations. The money that could be made from procuring profitable plant products motivated many monarchs to risk men and men-of-war in their pursuit.

But, spices were generally dried plant products that would survive the lengthy sea voyages back home. Sadly, this was not the case for whole plants that were also encountered by these voyagers. And many of those newly-found plants had economic potential and were therefore valuable commodities to be possessed, and traded by those who discovered them. However, trying to transport those valuable botanics back to the home nation or to its colonies around the globe was fraught with problems. In most instances, tender tropical vegetation did not survive the journey – which often took many months, over several thousand miles, and crossed several different climatic zones.

During those long-distance journeys, the plants were frequently buffeted by wind, pounded by rain and drenched by seawater – all, or any, of which can be a death sentence to plants. Not only were these precious cargoes at the mercy of such environmental insults, they also had to compete with the crew for the precious reserves of life-sustaining freshwater*. Little wonder, then, that global translocation of economically interesting plants met with limited success. Nevertheless, the potential rewards of successfully establishing such plants in specially-created hot-houses such as the Palm House at Kew Gardens, in England or in Great Britain’s climate-conducive colonies were such that efforts continued. What if a way could be found to enable the large-scale movement of plants in safety? That would surely be a game-changer.

A method was found. And so successful was this technological breakthrough that it changed massively the fortunes of the nations that adopted it. That method was the Wardian case, a glazed box of wooden construction that could be closed to prevent entry of the atmosphere. In that sealed environment plants rooted in soil within the box were able to survive for long periods without watering [no doubt, much to the relief of the crew!], and could withstand the climatic rigours of long-distance transport.

This magical box was created by Englishman Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (David Hershey, The American Biology Teacher 58(5): 276–281, 1996; and its effectiveness was established in an important proof-of-principle experiment involving the transport of living plants between England and Australia that ended in November 1834. The Wardian case documents not only the journey that led to the development of Dr Ward’s travelling box, but also its widespread use in global plant translocation well into the 20th century.

That date of 1834 is particularly significant because it is shortly before Queen Victoria ascended to the English throne in 1837. The resulting Victorian Era coincided with the period during which the British Empire attained its greatest prominence. The Empire’s world-spanning reach supported and enforced by its Royal Navy (“the uncontested superiority of the British navy safeguarded the security of the imperial trade routes on which the life of Great Britain depends” (H Th De Booy, Pacific Affairs 10(2): 161-167, 1937; which effectively ‘ruled the waves’ permitted relatively unhindered passage of people, property, and plants between England and its many overseas ‘possessions’. Importantly, many of those colonies were in tropical climes, which were also therefore eminently suitable for growing plants not native to those lands but which might be ‘acquired’ from countries in similar latitudes elsewhere that were not controlled by Britain. With this political and climatic background, it’s probably no surprise that one of the earliest – and most prolific users, of the Wardian case was Great Britain. This is graphically underlined by Figure 8.2 in Keogh’s book [reproduced below] which shows the extent of the global movement of cases into and out of Kew Gardens from the British Empire’s outposts between 1842 and 1865, with each box potentially containing between 25 and 60 species.

Amongst this box’s numerous accomplishments – many of dubious legality – were: transport of 20,000 tea plants from Shanghai to India [more here and here] (which broke China’s near-monopoly on tea sales, strengthened the notion of the British as a nation of tea-drinkers, and has been termed ‘the Great British tea heist‘); shipping of rubber trees from Brazil to British colonies in Southeast Asia such as Malaya (via Kew), thereby establishing the British colonial rubber industry; and the successful transfer of Cinchona trees (the source of malaria-medicine quinine) from their native South America to British and Dutch colonies in India and Java (e.g. also Andrew Goss, Endeavour 38(1): 8-18, 2014;; Arjo Hoogte & Toine Pieters (2014), Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences. 47PA. 12-22. 10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.05.019), respectively (which facilitated further colonial expansion of European powers into equatorial Africa, particularly in malaria hotspots such as the area known as the ‘white man’s grave‘…). Behind each of those arresting tales of plant translocation are human stories, all of which are well-told by Keogh in his highly readable style. 

But, and as some of those stories above indicate, the story of this simple box that moved plants and changed the world is not an open-and-shut case. In many respects, Ward’s box is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it enabled peoples around the world to share the botanical riches that nature had unequally distributed. On the other, it facilitated – and indeed may even have encouraged – the wide-scale plunder of botanical resources by colonizing powers. In so doing, the plant-related intellectual property rights, which belong to the indigenous peoples of the plant’s native land, have been denied. Furthermore, the establishment of British-owned tea plantations in Assam has been associated with widespread abuses against indigenous people by the occupying power (e.g. Rana Behal, Modern Asian Studies 44: 29–51, 2010; doi:10.1017/S0026749X09990059). This is just one example of the outcome of the exploitative, expansionist, empire-building programmes practised by European powers in the 19th century whose legacy we are still debating and learning to live with in the 21st century (e.g. here, here, and here). Keogh recognises these unintended(?) consequences of the phenomenon one might term ‘Wardianism’ – which also includes the inadvertent transport and spread of invasive alien flora, fauna and fungi worldwide and attendant ecological and economic repercussions – and they are given a good airing within this book.

Although Nathaniel Bagshaw died in 1868 he had lived long enough to see the globe-changing potential of his invention. Amongst the many obituaries praising Dr Ward perhaps Joseph Dalton Hooker [Director of Kew Gardens]’s sums up the contribution of his creation most succinctly, “a large proportion of the most valuable economic and other tropical plants now cultivated in England would but for these cases, not yet have been introduced” (page 121).


The Wardian Case** is abundantly illustrated, meticulously researched and evidence-based – more than 30 pages of detailed notes supplement the text – and engagingly written. Keogh is to be congratulated on bringing the story of this humble, but world-changing, box to greater prominence and to the attention of all, and adding to the debate about Botanical Imperialism. This is powerful plants-and-people fare!

* Although apparently not proven, there is a widespread view that the infamous mutiny on the Bounty was precipitated in part by the ship’s limited stock of fresh-water being prioritised for its cargo of breadfruit trees. Interestingly, Keogh mentions the Bounty and its ill-fated attempt to transport breadfruit trees from the Pacific to the West Indies to make the point that, before the advent of the Wardian case, “whole ships were appropriated for the purpose” (page 43).

** Should you wish to peruse Ward’s own book describing his case, On the growth of plants in closely glazed cases is freely available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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