1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kermes

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KERMES (Arab. qirmiz; see Crimson), a crimson dye-stuff, now superseded by cochineal, obtained from Kermes ilicis (= Coccus ilicis, Lat. = C. vermilio, G. Planchon). The genus Kermes belongs to the Coccidae or Scale-insects, and its species are common on oaks wherever they grow. The species from which kermes is obtained is common in Spain, Italy and the South of France and the Mediterranean basin generally, where it feeds on Quercus coccifera, a small shrub. As in the case of other scale-insects, the males are relatively small and are capable of flight, while the females are wingless. The females of the genus Kermes are remarkable for their gall-like form, and it was not until 1714 that their animal nature was discovered.

In the month of May, when full grown, the females are globose, 6 to 7 millim. in diameter, of a reddish-brown colour, and covered with an ash-coloured powder. They are found attached to the twigs or buds by a circular lower surface 2 millim. in diameter, and surrounded by a narrow zone of white cottony down. At this time there are concealed under a cavity, formed by the approach of the abdominal wall of the insect to the dorsal one, thousands of eggs of a red colour, and smaller than poppy seed, which are protruded and ranged regularly beneath the insect. At the end of May or the beginning of June the young escape by a small orifice, near the point of attachment of the parent. They are then of a fine red colour, elliptic and convex in shape, but rounded at the two extremities, and bear two threads half as long as their body at their posterior extremity. At this period they are extremely active, and swarm with extraordinary rapidity all over the food plant, and in two or three days attach themselves to fissures in the bark or buds, but rarely to the leaves. In warm and dry summers the insects breed again in the months of August and September, according to Eméric, and then they are more frequently found attached to the leaves. Usually they remain immovable and apparently unaltered until the end of the succeeding March, when their bodies become gradually distended and lose all trace of abdominal rings. They then appear full of a reddish juice resembling discoloured blood. In this state, or when the eggs are ready to be extruded, the insects are collected. In some cases the insects from which the young are ready to escape are dried in the sun on linen cloths—care being taken to prevent the escape of the young from the cloths until they are dead. The young insects are then sifted from the shells, made into a paste with vinegar, and dried on skins exposed to the sun, and the paste packed in skins is then ready for exportation to the East under the name of “pâte d’écarlate.”

In the pharmacopoeia of the ancients kermes triturated with vinegar was used as an outward application, especially in wounds of the nerves. From the 9th to the 16th century this insect formed an ingredient in the “confectio alkermes,” a well known medicine, at one time official in the London pharmacopoeia as an astringent in doses of 20 to 60 grains or more. Syrup of kermes was also prepared. Both these preparations have fallen into disuse.

Mineral kermes is trisulphide of antimony, containing a variable portion of trioxide of antimony both free and combined with alkali. It was known as poudre des Chartreux because in 1714 it is said to have saved the life of a Carthusian monk who had been given up by the Paris faculty; but the monk Simon who administered it on that occasion called it Alkermes mineral. Its reputation became so great that in 1720 the French government bought the recipe for its preparation. It still appears in the pharmacopoeias of many European countries and in that of the United States. The product varies somewhat according to the mode of preparation adopted. According to the French directions the official substance is obtained by adding 60 grammes of powdered antimony trisulphide to a boiling solution of 1280 grammes of crystallized sodium carbonate in 12,800 grammes of distilled water and boiling for one hour. The liquid is then filtered hot, and on being allowed to cool slowly deposits the kermes, which is washed and dried at 100° C.; prepared in this way it is a brown-red velvety powder, insoluble in water.

See G. Planchon, Le Kermes du chêne (Montpellier, 1864); Lewis, Materia Medica (1784), pp. 71, 365; Memorias sobre la grana Kermes de España (Madrid, 1788); Adams, Paulus Aegineta, iii. 180; Beckmann, History of Inventions.