I grant you that a four-year-old with a passion for leaded glass is unusual. But I had already fallen in love with conservatories. For one thing, I knew from the huge one in the city park that they enclosed all-year-round summer. And they smelt delicious, especially in January. A life dream had been launched.
So what’s with the handful of moss? Our house is about as far from a greenhouse as you can get. But let me introduce you to the concept of moss gardens. They survive splendidly indoors if you have the right place for them, a dwelling place which was invented several centuries ago. When the 19th century brought with it a frenzy of global collecting, British naturalists scoured the world, competing to bring home the most exciting new species of plants. Realistically, however, even the most successful collecting trip inevitably ended in months of ship travel; 95% of the plants died. There had to be a way to protect these rare finds and an amateur horticulturist from Sussex named Dr. Nathaniel Ward invented one. His glassed boxes changed the survival rate of transported exotic plants to 95%, resulting in successes like African violets (which are not violets at all, of course, but hailed from Tanganyika in the 1880's). The glass boxes, early precursors to terraria, were a hit at home too. Although their original use has been displaced, home-use Wardian cases are still manufactured today, and remain traditionally Victorian in style — little glass houses with peaked roofs and leaded glass. My four-year-old self or what remains of it absolutely adores them.
Having watched for sales of these little gems over decades, I have ended up with a small collection. They stood empty for years. Truth was, I had no idea what to put in them. Not that I hadn’t tried. There were abysmal failures. One promising miniature jungle turned into a fungal nightmare. One which I set up outside in the spring boiled its unhappy inhabitants. Finally I stumbled upon two green things which thrived. One satisfied tenant is a miniature phalanopsis orchid with the aerial root system exposed (no blooms so far but I live in hope.) The other workhorse of my Wardian cases is moss. Many years ago I read an article about a man who lived downtown with a tiny garden that faced north. Nothing he planted survived until he settled on mosses. They fit the bill both in terms of size and light requirements., and he planted every species he could find. It must have been a beautiful place, for mosses are truly beautiful, not only for their bright emerald greens, but for their multitudinous blooms - hundreds of tiny fruiting bodies standing like tiny palm trees above their miniature landscapes. I have some in bloom now and every day I lift the lids and marvel, taking in deep breaths of summer.
There is much to commend glass houses, despite what that nasty saying implies, and why roll a stone if you want to gather moss? I heartily recommend living with, rather than in, at least one; if you feel the need to throw something at it, throw orchids or moss. And don’t forget to inhale.