With the melting of the snows in the Himalayas, hordes of villagers of Nepal’s far western region trek up to the alpine pastures near the towering Himalayan peaks where they pitch camp for an extended stay of almost eight weeks, braving the cold and harsh environment. They spend their days mostly on all fours, crawling through the shrub lands, digging with utmost care when they espy an unusual kind of mushroom called Yarsagumba. This, they brush gently with a toothbrush and keep it in their pickers’ basket. They come in their thousands, lured by the high returns promised for finding this unusual herb. Experienced pickers can earn over 2,500 dollars each during a good season, five times more than the annual average earnings of a Nepali. Yarsagumba is said to be the most expensive herb in the world today. A kilo of it fetches more than 10,000 dollars in the international market. Pickers in the mountains get just a dollar apiece which eventually inflates to 30 dollars apiece in the cities. Even in the old days too, Yarsagumba couldn’t be said to come cheap. Travellers noted that in 1890, black, rotten specimens cost four times their weight in silver (Cooke, 1892). In 1990, Yarsagumba cost $700/kilo in the Chinese wholesale market (Hollobaugh, 1993).
What is Yarsagumba and why is it in so much demand?
Yarsagumba (Cordyceps or also Ophiocordyceps Sinensis) is a most weird herb. One term often used—Chinese Caterpillar Fungus—is pretty descriptive of the species. So is dong chong xia cao (winter insect, summer grass) as Yarsagumba is often referred to in China.
How is it formed?
The caterpillar of a moth genus Thitarodes (Hepialus) lives underground in shrub lands of the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas (3,000 m – 5,000 m) for almost five years before becoming a pupa. During its larva state, it is attacked by a fungus of the genus Ophiocordycipitaceae which kills the insect by filling its body cavity with mycelium. Once the weather gets warmer, mushrooms growing out of the caterpillar’s forehead emerge from the ground.
Yarsagumba’s health benefits are believed to have been known since 1,500 years ago and in ancient times it was said to be taken as a potent tonic by kings and noblemen. Its pharmacological properties include combating the rigors of stress by strengthening and rejuvenating an over-exerted system. In Chinese traditional medicine, it is said to be a cure-all for all types of ailments. This includes strengthening the lungs and kidneys, increasing energy and vitality, stopping hemorrhaging and so on. However, the most publicized benefit of Yarsagumba is to enhance weak libidos, that is, Yarsagumba is believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. Besides this, it is touted highly for its anti-ageing benefits. In other words, to summarize, Yarsagumba is believed to be an excellent tonic for nourishment of the body as well as for the brain. Its long-term use is said to improve organic functioning as well as the immune system. And, it must be kept in mind that since Yarsagumba is a natural product, the chances of any side effects are minimal. Is it any wonder then that Yarsagumba is so highly prized all over the world?
At the same time, it needs to be noted that Yarsagumba’s popularity in the West is not centuries old but of more recent times. In the 1990s, the tabloids went crazy over “Ma Junren’s Army” and their world record breaking feats. Ma Junren was a legendary Chinese coach whose women runners achieved astonishing times in the middle and long distance races, shattering a number of long standing world records by significant margins. When asked for the secret of his fantastic successes, Ma Junren disclosed that his runners were fed Yarsagumba three times daily so as to fight the stress involved in rigorous training in the high mountains. Soon enough, tabloids globally had latched on to the scent of a sensational story. The rest, as they say, is history. And so was born the legend of Yarsagumba, the “miracle” mushroom.