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Cambridge University Herbarium


Understanding British Elms

Researchers: Cicely Marshall and Sam Brockington (Department of Plant Sciences), Alex Prendergast (Natural England), and Brian Eversham (Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs & Northants)

Sequencing plant DNA provides a wealth of information about genetic diversity and ancestry. DNA from historical material, preserved in herbaria, and fresh material can build a picture of how genetic make-up varies on spatial and temporal scales.

Up to sixty-two species of elm tree are known from England, many of which may be threatened. Many of these taxa are well-represented by specimens in our Herbarium. Almost all species have been severely impacted by waves of Dutch Elm Disease since the 1960s and few mature trees remain. In spite of the disease, it appears that elms (albeit now primarily small trees) are frequent in historically elm-rich landscapes. Genomic work using freshly collected and herbarium material is revealing the remaining species diversity, while fieldwork and georeferencing of several thousand herbarium specimens are helping to determine potential avenues for protecting and restoring healthy and diverse wild elm populations. Transcription projects like the “Great British Elm Hunt” have allowed members of the public to contribute to the project by transcribing the label data from over 1000 elm specimen sheets.

Read: Wildlife Trust BCN Guide to Identifying British Elms (Brian Eversham, 2021).

Watch: Cambridge Festival 2023 - The Great British Elm Hunt transcription project.