The mania for terrariums began in our house last summer after I took the girls to the Museum of Art and Design to see Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities. Celebrating the tiny and the strange, the exhibition was divided into four themes: Apocalpytic Archeology, Dreams and Memories, Voyeurs/Provacateurs, and Unnatural Nature. For a show that featured a large number of snow globes and dioramas, it was not exactly aimed for an audience of small children, a point I felt acutely when trying to explain a snow-globe scene that appeared to be two people disposing of a body in a rolled-up carpet. But generally, it was fascinating in the way that tiny things can be and has a virtual afterlife in the website, Small Realities, where you can peruse photos from the exhibition and even submit your own miniature creations.
MAD has an open studio program where they invite working artists to use their space to demonstrate their process – usually related to the exhibitions. The day we were there, the artists in residence happened to be from Twig Terrarium. I had long admired their work from afar and was excited to see them in action – as were the girls who couldn’t get enough of the moss. Inspired, I paid a visit to Sprout Home where I picked up some supplies. Aided by Hurricane Irene which kept us indoors, we gathered up jars and rocks, hunkered down, and set to work.
Arranging plants in small glass enclosures is a decidedly Victorian pursuit that can be traced back to Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868). A London doctor by profession, Ward had a keen interest in botany and the cultivation of ferns but found that most of his plants were not thriving in the polluted, urban environment that was London in the 1820’s. Like all good 19th-century polymaths, he also liked to cultivate butterflies and moths and kept them in glass jars. Quite by accident he noticed that the small bits of grass he kept in the jar with the cocoons had taken root and actually bloomed. This discovery lead him to design the Wardian Case, a sealed glass container that was subsequently used to ship plants back and forth between England and the colonies. In 1842, he published On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases and soon after, every respectable Victorian home had its own Wardian case used to cultivate ferns and later, orchids.
Our approach to the terrarium is much less scientific and more about arranging things in glass containers. We started with rocks, acorns, and other random items of a vaguely botanical nature that we had on hand. We collected sand and shells at the beach and – when we went upstate in the fall – we spent a glorious morning “mossing” on the hillside next to our friend’s house:
Not only did we find moss, but some amazing mushrooms, too (that we left in situ).
Our apartment is now filled with various containers of collected moss, rocks, sand, and a few plants we are hoping will take root in our little ecosystems. Most of our terrariums are in the form of hanging globes in the windows which my youngest daughter uses as a place to arrange her various Lego people, creating tableaux that change on a daily basis and remind me of the Little Prince visiting his asteroids.
If you’re also compelled to arrange plants in jars, I recommend looking at The Fern and Mossery, a great resource for all things terrarium.