Horticulture on the high seas

Brunel’s SS Great Britain has a new botanical installation celebrating the Australian roots of the English Garden.

Living plants have returned to the SS Great Britain – Bristol’s number one visitor attraction – for the first time in 150 years. The ship’s weather deck now displays six beautifully reconstructed Wardian cases for visitors to explore. Wardian cases were mini glass houses which, in 1833, were adapted to transport living plants on the decks of ships across the oceans.

In its day, the SS Great Britain transported royalty, nobility, and sports stars alike. But this year, the team behind the iconic vessel is marking the ship’s role in horticultural history by celebrating its lesser-known plant passengers. The modern-day cases are replicas of the last surviving ship-board example designs, which are kept in the Kew Gardens archive. The cases celebrate the inbound and outbound plant species that the ship transported across the world between 1859 and 1875.

As the fastest ship travelling to Australia in her day, many traders (nursery workers, plant-hunters and botanists) used the SS Great Britain to transport their precious cargo across long distances. Antipodean ferns and tree ferns, hugely popular in the conservatories and glass houses of Victorian Britain, were often transported on the ship. The SS Great Britain also carried orchids, which could command huge prices as ornamental pieces at the time.

The exhibition includes a talk and workshops

Explore extraordinary Wardian cases
Thanks to new research from the Brunel Institute, which studied the ship’s cargo manifests, each case has been planted with a true-to-life ‘order’ to make the global crossing. The innovation of the Wardian case revolutionised long-distance plant transport. Each sealed case created its own microclimate, allowing the flora to survive despite only being watered once during a two-month crossing.

Alongside exploring the Wardian cases, visitors to Brunel’s SS Great Britain can enjoy a new botany-themed ‘discovery talk’ and participate in horticultural workshops throughout the year. The ship will also add a ‘botanist’s cabin’ to its museum, depicting the sights, sounds and smells of life on board, and highlighting the important work and research of Victorian botanists and ‘plant hunters’.

Jane Porter, award winning garden designer based in Bristol who has planted up one of the Wardian cases, says: “Ferns are one of the most exciting signs of Spring as their fronds unfurl after a long winter. Many of the plants we cherish and associate with Britain are not native species and were actually imported from across the world. The SS Great Britain transported many of these plants from abroad which then became intertwined with our cultural heritage.

“The Wardian case was a considerable innovation of its time, and it is remarkable because it allowed plants to thrive with minimal maintenance. The closed environment created a microclimate that sustained the plants during long sea voyages. I’ve been fascinated to learn about the different species of ferns transported between the UK and Australia. During the Victorian era, SS Great Britain played a crucial role in the ‘fern fever’, that gripped the country and became a status symbol for wealthy families.”

A Wardian case

Giving Darwin a helping hand
By enabling the global migration of plants, the SS Great Britain connected key botanists, entrepreneurs and ‘plant hunters’ from across the world. The plants that the SS Great Britain transported inspired some of our most famous thinkers. It’s thought that the Australian orchids, which supported Darwin’s theory of evolution, were sent to his home in Kent via the SS Great Britain.

“We’re so excited to bring the horticultural history of the SS Great Britain to life for the first time,” adds Iona Keen, Head of Interpretation at Brunel’s SS Great Britain. “Visitors can immerse themselves in the untold botanical story of Brunel’s famous ship and discover the delights of our Wardian cases.

“Each has been faithfully restored with the help of our partners from across Bristol’s growing communities, and collectively, they offer a fascinating insight into the floral favourites of the Victorians. Our new exhibits provide insight into just how significant the use of Wardian cases and steamships were as living plants started to be moved between continents for the first time.”

The permanent botany exhibits can be visited now on the weather deck of the SS Great Britain. Purchase tickets at ssgreatbritain.org/tickets