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Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass

What is a Terrarium?, History of Terrarium, Types of Terrariums

We can see many types of ecosystems or biological communities of interacting organisms and their physical environment in nature. Some are terrestrial, some are aquatic, and some may be artificial. But have you ever thought of an ecosystem that can be made at home- in a container? A terrarium is such a type of ecosystem that can be made by anyone easily. It enables us to design and create tiny ecosystems of small plants & other decorative elements inside a glass container.

What is a Terrarium?

A terrarium (plural: terraria or terrariums) is usually a sealable glass container that contains soil and plants. It can be opened for maintenance to access the plants inside. Rather than being sealed, it can also be open to the atmosphere. Most of the time, terrariums are kept as decorative items inside the home or office. Closed terrariums create a unique atmosphere for plant growth, as the transparent glass walls allow for both heat & light to enter the terrarium. A small-scale water cycle is created inside the sealed container which is combined with the heat entering the terrarium. This thing happens because the moisture from both the soil and plants evaporates at the elevated temperature inside the terrarium. The water vapor then condenses on the walls of the glass container before falling back to the soil and plants.

This phenomenon helps to create an ideal environment for plant growth due to the constant supply of water and thereby prevents the plants from becoming over dry. Also, the light that passes through the transparent material of the terrarium allows the plants within to photosynthesize which is a common aspect for plant growth.


History of Terrarium

In 1842, botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward made the first terrarium. He wrote a book called “On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases”. He had an interest in observing insect behavior, so he placed a chrysalis into a glass bottle along with some mold and capped it. Then he placed it at the area where sunlight was available. He noticed that during the daytime, moisture forms at the top of the bottle and then circulates back down to the mold and soil in the evening. Surprisingly, a seedling fern & a sprout of grass bloomed inside the jar. Previously, Nathaniel was trying to grow it in his garden but it was not doing well due to the pollution from local factories which affected the growth of his plants. This made him believe that plants can grow in such a condition where they are protected from contamination. He then placed it outside the window and plants continued to grow inside the bottle even without water!

Soon it became a trend and spread quickly in the Victorian Era among the English. During that time, it was known as Wardian Case. Wardian cases were built by carpenters who were hired by Nathaniel, and these cases were used to export native British plants to Australia. Despite traveling for months, the plants arrived in mint condition and were still growing. This indicates that plants can be sealed in without ventilation and water and continue to thrive. Wardian cases were used for many decades by Kew Gardens and others, for shipping plants around British Empire.


Types of Terrariums

There are mainly 2 types of terrariums: 1) closed terrriums and 2) open terrariums

  • Closed Terrariums: Contain lid. As the temperature is slightly higher inside a closed terrarium, it’s natural only to appear moist from the soil and plants. After evaporating, the water vapor condenses on the side of the glass container and falls back to the soil & plants at the bottom. This creates a small water cycle inside and thus closed terrariums are self-sufficient. As the glass container is transparent, it allows light to pass through it and then photosynthesis occurs.
  • Open Terrariums: Don’t contain a lid to cover the plants inside. Unlike the closed ones, open terrariums prefer drier conditions and don’t need a moist atmosphere. Also, these don’t have a regular water cycle as it’s open to the air. Thus open terrariums need watering frequently, maybe once a week or when the soil gets dry. So, these are not self-sufficient.

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