Some plants are pleasant under glass


Terrariums, those miniature green worlds under glass that gardeners of a certain age remember so well, are making a comeback.

Terrarium-workshop attendance is up; plant stores and gardening catalogs are showcasing fancy containers; the Philadelphia Flower Show has almost doubled the number of competitions for terrariums this year; and one lifestyle magazine even suggests making tiny terrariums out of clear glass ornaments left over from Christmas.

Can a terrarium episode of That '70s Show be far behind?

It was in the '70s, in fact, that South Jersey gardener Ann Neff first encountered gardening under glass and made her first little biosphere in a bubble.

"It was like a ship in a bottle, only it was plants," recalls Neff, a professional puppeteer who lived in Manhattan at the time. She still has the tools -- long tweezers and bamboo sticks -- that she purchased in a plant store in Greenwich Village.

That garden has long since disappeared, but not her enchantment with miniature landscapes. So Neff, who took up gardening with a vengeance when she moved to Monroeville, N.J., a decade ago, signed up when a local nursery offered a terrarium workshop.

This time, she created her garden in a glass bowl, with personal touches that included mosses harvested from her 10-acre property, and presented it to her stepdaughter as a gift. "It was great fun," she says.

Terrariums were born in the Victorian age, when plant exploration was at its height.

A British physician named Nathaniel Ward was conducting experiments with caterpillars in the 1820s when he discovered, quite accidentally, that plant life could thrive in a glass jar.

This led to the invention of the Wardian case, a mostly glass container in which live plants could be safely shipped around the globe. It proved an enormous boon to plant exploration, protecting plants from salt spray and changing climates on long ocean voyages.

The glass cases captured the people's fancy. Upscale Victorians began growing plants in ever-more-ornate versions, like smaller-scale models of the era's elaborate crystal conservatories.

But Ward saw his invention as more than just a fashionable home accessory. He was a humanitarian who also envisioned his invention as a way for the poor to be able to grow green vegetables -- something that was often impossible in the heavily polluted air of urban areas in 19th-century Britain.

If terrariums in general are enjoying a revival now, so are decorative interpretations of the Wardian case, though they aren't always called that. You can find them in catalogs under such names as Victorian terrarium or Gothic conservatory.

"It's not necessarily just the hard-core horticulture places that are offering them," says Chela Kleiber, who manages educational workshops and classes for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "They show up in a home-decorating context, as a design element," even if they have no plants in them at all.

Virginia Page-Hentschel, who teaches a terrarium workshop at Meadowbrook Farm in Abington Township, Pa., probably helped fuel the trend a few years ago, when she began growing begonia cuttings in terrariums for practical reasons -- the glass containers create an ideal environment.

"There were some old ones in the back [at Meadowbrook], like little houses, and I started planting them up," she says. "And people saw them and said, 'Oh, great! Terrariums!' and started buying them. It was like a little trip to the past for them."

But not for Page-Hentschel. "I'm like an old hippie, and I've been doing terrariums since the '70s," she laughs.

Page-Hentschel, who usually uses crystal bowls with glass plates as covers, thinks convenience is part of terrariums' renewed appeal.

"I'm sensing it's a lifestyle change for women who work or travel," she says, but still want to garden. "They want to have these beautiful things that take more time, but now they can grow them in a controlled environment and have the best of both worlds -- [the plants] are protected from lack of humidity, lack of water, and temperature changes.

"Once the environment gets going, it takes care of itself. You can go away on vacation."

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