A group of Year 7 students have planted precious orchids on board the SS Great Britain. In the Victorian era, the ship transported the rare and valuable flowers across the ocean in Wardian Cases, and the species planted by the students in special terrariums (sealed glass containers) echo those carried by the ship.

The students were from Writhlington School in Radstock, which is known for its expertise in orchid propagation and growth. The Writhlington School Orchid Project has been running for over 30 years, and students care for over 240 square metres of orchids. The project now boasts the third largest collection of orchids in the country.

Wardian Cases revolutionised long-distance plant transport. Each sealed case created its own microclimate, allowing flora to survive despite only being watered once during a two-month crossing. By enabling the global migration of plants, the SS Great Britain connected key botanists, nurserymen and ‘plant hunters’ from across the world.

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On outbound trips to Australia, the cases carried roses, rhododendrons, and even the invasive bramble species to people who had emigrated to Australia and hoped to recreate their English gardens and hedgerows. On return journeys, the ship transported coveted Australian orchids, with some selling for as much as £300 – the equivalent of £25,000 in today’s money.

Head of interpretation at Brunel’s SS Great Britain Iona Keen said: “Bringing together the Writhlington School Orchid Project and the horticultural history of the SS Great Britain is a tremendous honour.

“It is remarkable that the students have been able to plant the same varieties of orchids today that would have travelled onboard in the 1860s. The Wardian Case is a testament to how significant steamships were to transporting living plants between continents for the first time.”

The public will be able to view the orchids planted by Writhlington School from July 22 when all six Wardian cases will be completed and on display at the visitor attraction as permanent new exhibits. The new visitor experience delves into the story of how living plants were transported across continents for the first time over 160 years ago.