Wednesday, November 2, 2011


As fall sets in here in the Midwest and the garden is put to bed in preparation for its winter slumber, my thoughts turn to my houseplants—particularly my African violets. After all, they're the only living blooms I'll be able to enjoy from now until May. Like the Victorians, I enjoy displaying my houseplants under glass. The other day I was trying to think outside-the-box a bit and found this weathered lantern that I'd stashed in our attic when we moved into the house. It makes a splendid home for a candy pink-and-white African violet on my dining room buffet. I thought a lady slipper orchid would look lovely in this, too, but I don't have one short enough to fit!

Violets like humidity and this particular enclosure has holes which provide good ventilation so my violet won't overheat. 

You regular readers know that I am a magazine writer and editor by trade. Years ago, I wrote an article on the Victorian glass gardens known as Wardian cases—the predecessors of the modern day terrarium. I had such fun researching the topic since my other major in college was history. The Wardian case concept was discovered in 1829 by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a doctor and accomplished amateur botanist. I found some illustrations of these glass treasures in my collection of 19th-century ladies magazines that I thought would be fun to share.

During the Victorian era, many English botanists traveled to distant lands in search of exotic plant specimens to bring back home. To protect them on their long journey, they enclosed them in sealed glass containers—the predecessors of the larger Wardian cases. With their penchant for showy splendor, the Victorians eagerly embraced the concept and often displayed their most prized plants in these elaborate indoor glasshouses.

Even if you don't have a fancy Wardian case, you can create your own version with a simple lantern like mine—or a glass dome atop a garden urn like the one shown here. It's amazing what ideas you can come up with just a little creativity.

And there's another important advantage of having a few houseplants! They purify the air, removing up to 87 percent of toxins found in ordinary household products. Placing several in a room will increase humidity, which can help prevent respiratory problems—always a good thing during the upcoming cold and flu season! To purify the air, experts recommend using 15-18 plants for an 1,800-square-foot house. It might seem like a lot but that's nothing in my house, where some 50 African violets, orchids, and rex begonias make their home!


  1. Lovely! The Victorians did everything so elegantly. Your plants are amazing. I keep fresh flowers in the house but maybe I should try one plant this winter!

  2. Beautiful post and very informative. I'll be on a search in my home to see what I might use for glass garden. Love violets, but haven't had any in some time.

  3. I'm always impressed when someone can grow violets. My mom tried for years with no success and unfortunately I've inherited her black thumb as well. I love the Victorian history too. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Very nice post and your violet is beautiful! I just fed my violet and orchid cactus last I am waiting for some flowers.

  5. What an inspired idea for housing your pretty pink-and-white violet! I love the beautiful drawings of the Wardian cases too. I first learned about them in Victoria years ago. Also, plant hunter Robert Fortune is said to have shipped tea seeds from China in Wardian cases, so they rose in my estimation upon learning that little tidbit! (It's discussed in Sarah Rose's book "For All the Tea in China," which I just devoured!)


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