Houston Matters

Living Art: Houston Artist Creates Tiny Botanical Sanctuaries In Glass

Danielle Reed explains how making terrariums became her own, personal sanctuary.

Danielle Reed of Botanical Sanctuary adjusts a plant to face the light. To her right are long-reaching tools to dig and adjust the plants and soil inside the glass vessels.

In a dusty construction zone, there is a hidden botanical sanctuary where Danielle Reed dives half of her body into a bag full of fresh dirt. She emerges and scoops it into the thin neck of a boiling flask.

Reed layers the soil over rocks and thin cloth and then slides in ferns and moss. The greens are planted used long stem tweezers and spoons specially made for the tight spaces of the terrariums like Reed makes as she recreates a tiny forest — almost like making a ship in a bottle.

She creates these works of plant art for her business, Botanical Sanctuary.

Botanical artist Danielle Reed with some of the tools of her craft, including live plants, glass vessels, and bones.

Reed knew she wanted to be an artist at four years old when she first rescued empty milk cartons from the trash to make sculptures. But getting there was a difficult path.

In college, Reed found herself far away from her original goal and in the depths of drug and alcohol addiction. After a battle to gain control over her illness, she was left dealing with the world in a new way.

"I became sober first, and then I became a very raw person with my emotions and my feelings," Reed said. "And I would have to say that the plants chose me. I didn't make any conscious decisions...it just happened."

While the first few plants she brought home died almost immediately, she kept at it.

"I went through a rebirth – so I grew the tip of my green thumb in 2011,” she said. “That's when I started noticing plants and getting back into nature."

A successfully sealed terrarium displays the water condensation on the interior glass. Heat and light draw water vapor from the soil and “rain” down again on the plant, recreating the earth’s water cycle.

After many years of researching, attending lectures by plant nurseries and biologists, and experimenting with plants, Reed was able to hone her skills in plant care enough to start building terrariums.

A terrarium is a mini self-sustaining ecosystem in a glass jar. Plants in soil with a sealed lid can live off of sunlight and condensation from the glass. Some self-contained terrariums can last decades, including a world famous 60-year-old specimen.

Terrariums were first invented in the late 1850s by botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. It caused a massive shift in plant exportation because the sealed jars could safely carry tropical plants across the sea to multiple countries.

Carrying exotic plants suddenly became fashionable for all classes in European countries as the plants could also survive temperature drops during the fall and winter months.

Terrariums now come with different styles and intentions. Some serve to showcase individual plants, while others recreate landscapes or are used for dioramas.

While some gardeners are content to use terrariums simply to grow their plants, Reed also uses them as self-reflection and expression. Her creations often tell a story of anxiety or survival.

An up-close look at one of Danielle Reed’s artistic terrariums. Doll arms hold up a plant and moss recreates a miniature grass field.

One example is a terrarium piece with plants and doll arms holding up an air plant in a recreated grass field. This piece is a reflection of how uncomfortable Reed says she feels in most places and the refuge she feels when she’s in her studio, working with her plants.

"When I was younger...there was a lot of chaos, and I noticed even in today's society – today's world – we have a lot of chaos," Reed said. "And whenever I get into [the Botanical Sanctuary], it reminds me how I felt when I was four years old...I just want to be in that safe place."

A table in Danielle Reed’s art studio, Botanical Sanctuary, displays different styles of terrariums.

Reed now uses her studio to show others the peace of mind she gets from working with plants. She holds workshops and invites the public to create their own living art with her.

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