Terrariums can be simply defined as self-sustaining natural terrains, eco systems inside lidded glass jars.
In 1829, when an English physician and botanist named Nathaniel Ward, was trying to raise a particular species of moth in a covered glass jar, he found tiny ferns growing in a sealed bottle, which hadn't been watered in 4 years! Thus, the concept of terrariums as we know it today was born. Ward then devised the Wardian case, basically a grandfather of today’s terrariums, a glass box (then known as a Vitrine) used to transport plants collected in distant countries back to the British Isles. So in the Victorian era, it became quite the fashion for explorers to bring back exotic plants especially orchids in Vitrines in which their native climate had been recreated. In addition to having their own heating systems, Vitrines were also quite elaborately decorated.
The purpose of Vitrines or Terrariums was not merely decorative, they had a commercial use too. In the mid-1800s, 20,000 tea plants were successfully transported by ship from China to India in Terrariums, marking the beginning of India's flourishing tea industry.
Today, these types of terrariums still exist. However, the term can also be applied to environments for the keeping of small animals (also known as Vivariums) such as reptiles, amphibians, arachnids etc.
The Science behind Terrariums
The science behind terrariums is simple – the environment inside the closed glass jar creates a sort of greenhouse effect, as little that is produced can go out of the jar. It is a known fact that plants emit a lot of oxygen and moisture, and these emissions are enough to sustain them inside a closed jar for months without needing anything extra. In fact, anything over a couple of drops of water a fortnight can cause plants in a terrarium to die because of over-watering. Another thing – the temperature and humidity are controlled by the closed lid of the jar, which makes these bottled gardens immune to changes in weather conditions.
The Advantages of Terrariums
Terrariums are a wonderful way to bring the outdoors in, especially in modern city apartments with no gardens. Unlike house plants which can be dried out by air-conditioning and heating systems indoors, terrarium plants are contained in their own humidity-controlled environment and remain unaffected by the humidity and temperature outside the jar. Also, unlike house plants, terrarium plants thrive on neglect – which make them perfect gardens for busy city dwellers to have.
Recommended Soils for Terrariums
Terrariums require a light, well-drained soil or substrate which doesn’t retain water. Most used subtrates are : common soil, small pebbles, sand, peat, chips of various trees, vegetable fibres (of coconut for example), or a combination of them. The choice of the substrate depends on the needs of the plants (type of ground, how much dampness it can withstand) and aesthetics aspect
Recommended Plants for Terrariums
Not all plants can grow well inside bottles. Even the ones that do, need to be smaller and hardier than their counterparts that grow naturally. For this reason, professional Terrarium gardeners often source plants from tissue culture labs.
Tropical plants like Chemedora palm, Syngonium, most species of orchids and ferns flourish in jars, for the conditions created inside terrariums are very similar to those in tropical forests – humid, warm, rich and dark. For that reason, cacti and other succulents that grow in dry conditions would never be able to survive the moisture inside terrariums, and would rot almost instantly.
To see several videos on how to build terrariums, how to position light inside terrariums and more, see Terrarium Videos