Banishing barberry: The history of Berberis vulgaris prevalence and wheat stem rust incidence across Britain

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Wheat stem rust, caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici (Pgt), is a notoriously damaging disease of wheat and barley. Pgt requires two hosts to complete its lifecycle; undergoing asexual reproduction on cereal crops and completing sexual reproduction on Berberis spp. The latter stage of its lifecycle is of particular importance in temperate regions such as western Europe, where asexual urediniospores are unable to survive cold winter weather. In the past, the crucial role of Berberis in the lifecycle of stem rust led to intensive eradication campaigns, initially carried out by farmers in the face of hostile scientific opinion. In the United Kingdom, common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is today a relatively rare plant. Stem rust is, however, currently experiencing a resurgence; at the same time, there has been a general increase in the prevalence of barberry and an upsurge in its planting which, in the United Kingdom, is associated with attempts to encourage the endangered barberry carpet moth (Pareulype berberata). This article situates current developments within a broader chronological framework, examining changing attitudes towards barberry and rust in England in the past and the history of the plant’s use and cultivation. It assesses how widespread B. vulgaris really was in the environment historically, and thus the scale of its eradication. We suggest that Berberis was never widely established as an archaeophyte in the United Kingdom. Current attempts to re-establish it are based on a misunderstanding of the plant’s historical status and could potentially pose a serious threat to food security.???????