How You Can Create an Entire Garden—in a Bottle

Terrariums offer a singular way to enjoy a little green space, no matter what the weather.

Milan-based designer Matteo Cibi’s limited edition Domsai—part terrarium, part companion. (Photo: Courtesy Matteo Cibi)

Feb 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Maile Pingel is a Los Angeles-based design historian.

During the dark months of winter, there seems to be a perennial resurgence of enthusiasm for terrariums. Florists and botanical gardens start hosting workshops; craft blogs and websites like Pinterest surge with ideas. A Google search for February 2014 events revealed thousands of terrarium how-to gatherings around the globe. Why February? Are we craving the bright-green, hope-filled shoots of spring? Does Valentine’s Day make us nostalgic? There’s just something achingly sentimental about the glass-enclosed gardens.

When an email notice from a local garden shop arrived the other day, my curiosity got the better of me. I knew terrariums were largely a novelty of the Victorian era but knew not much beyond that, so I began searching for information on the history of the diminutive gardens.

Turns out, the origin of the terrarium wasn’t as much about plants as it was about bugs—the sphinx moth, to be precise. In the late 1830s, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor, placed a chrysalis and some moss into a sealable glass bottle with the intent of documenting the etymological transformation. Setting the bottle on a sunny windowsill, Dr. Ward noticed that during the day the sunlight caused moisture to collect at the top of the bottle, only to drip back down during the night, watering the plant matter. Eventually, a tiny blade of grass revealed itself, along with a seedling fern, a type of which he’d been unable to grow successfully in his garden. Because the plants grew so well in the safe environment of the sealed container, he concluded that pollution from nearby factories must have inhibited their growth outside. The results of Ward’s findings were published in 1842 as “On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.” The doctor’s discovery set off a national craze, and a flurry of tabletop hothouses called Wardian cases hit the market.

These days, terrariums can be found in startling variety: antique styles that look like mini-conservatories, repurposed objects like glass teapots and light bulbs, even hanging geodesic forms that would make Bucky Fuller proud. In 2011, London-based designer Samuel Wilkinson brought terrariums into the modern age with the Biome, a terrarium controlled via smartphone or iPad. A tap here, a tap there, and the climate and nutrients are adjusted.

English industrial designer Samuel Wilkinson’s 2011 Biome, a terrarium controlled via mobile device. (Photo courtesy of Samuel Wilkinson)

Whether it’s your average potted houseplant or a terrarium of the lush or arid variety, indoor greens provide a connection with the earth, with something greater. My 20-year-old ficus is more like a friend than a tree—it’s been with me since college. We all know that plants are natural humidifiers and purify the air, but did you know they can make us feel better? They can reduce headaches and colds, and caring for them has proved helpful for people suffering from depression. One study even found that hospital patients with plants in their rooms requested less pain medication. Feeling better in your now prettier home: It’s a whole new reason to go green—chlorophyll green.