Case Studies: Questions of Home, Plants and Power

It’s curious to think that a few pieces of glass and timber are responsible for that banana I ate for breakfast, the orchid sitting on your windowsill, or the tyres on your car. It’s interesting to ponder that the seemingly simple, and actually accidental, invention of the Wardian case – a fully sealed glass case for plant transport – could break and make empires and cultures. Whilst today the Wardian case is most commonly seen as a decorative item (its close cousin being the terrarium), it had immense impact on the way we eat and live. It globalised botany, for better or worse.

The story of the Wardian case begins in 1829. London doctor and amateur naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward placed a moth pupa on some leaf mould into a sealed jar, wanting to watch the insect’s metamorphosis. Soon, however, his interest was sideswiped by a fern and a small grass growing in the jar. Ward was delighted – he was an avid fern collector and had much trouble growing them in his smoggy London garden. He began experimenting with his discovery, testing many plants and designs, and soon realised the potential of his sealed glass cases for plant transportation. Ward recorded the results of his research in the 1842 book On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

The Wardian case, and its influence on global plant movement, has long intrigued Auckland based florist Felicity Jones – from the small stories of connection to home and land, via gardening, and the wider cultural and environmental implications of the movement of plants throughout the world. “I’ve often thought how making a garden might have been paramount for early European settlers on their arrival to Aotearoa (New Zealand). Not only for obvious survival reasons, but also as a means of maintaining an emotional connection with a now distant homeland. I was curious to find out how our exotic plant life arrived here, and soon discovered the fascinating story of the Wardian Case. For New Zealand, it meant that very quickly, along with the influx of European settlers, the landscape was irrevocably changed.”

Case Studies is a series of images created by Felicity and photographer Mark Smith, exploring the influence and impact of the Wardian case in New Zealand. “Conceptually, we liked the idea of visual containment as a way of elevating a plant’s status. We also wanted to highlight the collision of the two botanical and cultural worlds.”

The pair made a case, and traveled around the countryside of New Zealand, photographing the juxtaposition of the botanical with the cultural, native with exotic. “In presenting these works we hope to contribute to an understanding of the stories of our past, both positive and negative, and promote discussion around our joint future.”

“Māori have this fantastic word and philosophy, Kaitiakitanga, which refers to having a deep sense of respect and guardianship for the natural environment,” says Felicity. “It sums up how I, and many New Zealanders, feel about the responsibility we have to care for our land, air and water. Mistakes have, and continue to be made, but I believe there is hope for a future where more New Zealanders value and embrace a Māori world view – seeing land less in terms of ownership and usage and more as an entity that can provide, but in doing so, must always be respected and protected for future generations.”

From our most intimate human needs – to cultivate and care, to feel at home, to eat – to our most political and often destructive desires – to control, to own, to shape – plants have always been, and still are, involved. Case Studies illustrates this most important and often overlooked fact.

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

Dr Ward’s Case #17, Napier- Taupo Road, 2019

“Growing up in Auckland (mild and wet) hydrangeas seem to have ‘always been there’ looking blowsy and beautiful.  Last summer, one of our hottest and driest on record, we noticed them struggling. In this image the case was packed with slightly dehydrated blooms set among dry grass as a reference to our changing climate.”

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

Dr Ward’s Case #9, Te Parapara Garden, Hamilton, 2018

“We wanted to include some edible plant life in the series. At Te Parapara Garden (within Hamilton Gardens), we gained permission to photograph our case in the middle of a traditional kumara (sweet potato) pit. We chose the humble cabbage to provide our botanical and cultural counterpoint. Also notable is the way Māori had adjusted their own horticultural methods using raised mounds and rocks to increase soil temperature for the more tropical kumara they had imported many centuries earlier.”

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

Dr Ward’s Case, #13, Kaimanawa Forest Park, 2019

“I think this was our only unplanned shoot. While driving through a heather lined forest we came across a beautiful alley of native Toe Toe (Austroderia Splendens). This plant is under threat from the more vigorous invader, pampas grass. Heather (Calluna Vulgaris) was originally introduced to Tongariro National Park as a food source for imported game birds. The birds didn’t settle in the harsh mountainous area but the heather thrived and now smothers much of the native tussocks.”

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

Dr Ward’s Case #1, Te Henga,  2018

“I was excited seeing this first image come to life as it closely matched the image that had been floating around my head for so long, a case full of quintessential English flowers sitting in an iconic New Zealand landscape. This nikau grove on the West Coast of Auckland provided the perfect location.”

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

Dr Ward’s Case #18, Te Henga 

“This was a pain to set up (literally) but we wanted to include gorse as it has had such a big impact on the New Zealand landscape. Gorse was introduced in the 1850s to provide hedging and windbreaks on the Canterbury Plains. It quickly became New Zealand’s most prolific agricultural weed and is virtually impossible to eradicate. The good news is its ability to provide a nursery for native seedlings and is now used by the Department of Conservation as a method to help native bush regeneration. When young, gorse bushes are very dense. As they grow older, they become ‘leggy’, and provide the ideal conditions for native seeds to germinate and grow. The native seedlings grow up through the gorse, cutting out its light and eventually replacing it.”

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

Dr Ward’s Case #2, Te Henga

“This image portrays a small slice of the New Zealand native bush enclosed in a Wardian Case awaiting the long sea voyage ‘home’ . It includes kowhai, muhlenbeckia, corokia, manuka and several ferns – a bounty of botanical curiosities for plant enthusiasts at Kew Gardens and elsewhere.”

Image by Mark Smith and Felicity Jones.

‘Felled’ Kaingaroa Forest, 2019

“Mark has always been fascinated by the Pinus radiata forests of Aotearoa, their sheer scale, the destructive looking scenes created around them and their value – more as commodity than nature. They are a huge part of the New Zealand economy and their environmental impact is continually debated. We decided to keep our case empty for this shot taken near Lake Taupo, the introduced seedlings long escaped from their Californian home.”

Case Studies by Felicity Jones and Mark Smith is being exhibited at Allpress Studio in Auckland from October 15 to 25, coinciding with Tuia 250 Encounters.