Today a jar of plant material came back from the conservation department. It was going to be used in the Living Worlds exhibition but was pulled at the last minute. The jar came from the pharmaceutical part of the herbarium in the tower known as the Materia Medica.
The Materia Medica room consists of large glass jars filled with seeds, fruit, roots, leaves and other plant material that has been used by humans for medicinal and edible purposes. Rows of cocoa pods, cinnamon, sugar and other familiar cooking ingredients sit beside rows of quinine bark, willow shavings and other important plants that have been used throughout the history of the pharmaceutical industry.
As I was putting away the specimen, I noticed a jar on the table in the centre of the room. There was something green and glinting inside it, which I found unusual for a plant specimen. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was not plant material at all, but insect wings!
Cantharis is often called “Spanish Fly”, but this is a misleading name, as Cantharis is actually from the order Coleoptera. The generic name for this species is the Blister Beetle. The wings of the beetle are crushed and sometimes given to farm animals to induce them to mate. Ingestion by humans can cause irreversible damage.
The crushed wings are also used to remove benign growths such as warts on the feet by podiatrists.
It was certainly a surprise to me to come across this in the collections. It might be worth exploring to see if we have any other non-plant specimens in the cupboards.