CATERPILLAR FUNGI ARE not everybody’s finger food, though their beautifully-sculpted medicinal mushrooms are rich in fiber, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. The caterpillar fungus of commerce, Cordyceps sinensis, grows high in the Himalayan Mountains in the larvae (caterpillars) of equally high-altitude Asian ghost moths (genus Hepialus). An ancient medicine or tonic, caterpillar fungus is in reality part insect (mummified caterpillar) and part fungus; and perhaps a conundrum for vegetarians, who might have to take a pass on its medical benefits because of its animal kingdom (insect) component.
“Cordyceps is an abundant resource of useful natural products with various biological activity, and it has been used extensively as a tonic and health supplement for subhealth patients, especially seniors, in China and other Asian countries,” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University in an article pre-published online in October 2012 in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology.
For perhaps thousands of years (at least several hundred) in China and other Asian countries, “Cordyceps sinensis (Caterpillar fungus) has been used as a tonic for longevity, endurance, and vitality,” write Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers Zhenquan Liu et al. in an Open Access journal, Behavioral and Brain Functions. “Many studies have shown that Cordyceps sinensis modulates immune responses, inhibits tumor cell proliferation, enhances hepatic function, regulates insulin sensitivity” and modulates steroid production.
“Although Cordyceps sinensis is extensively used in Chinese medicine, it lacks scientific grounds for its efficacy,” write Liu et al. In other words, it has worked like magic for centuries; providing practical benefits, though the exact mechanisms of how it works are unknown or speculative. The Chinese researchers argue that even proponents of modern medicine objecting to traditional natural or folkloric medical treatments could benefit from studying the caterpillar fungus. Their argument is that the research results from studying the mechanisms of how the caterpillar fungus works to heal or prevent disease could also be used to develop more conventional medical or drug treatments.
Caterpillar fungus could be particularly useful for certain brain strokes, where modern medicine lacks effective drugs and treatments. ”The lack of effective and widely applicable pharmacological treatments for ischemic stroke patients may explain a growing interest in traditional medicines,” wrote Liu et al. An example is “self-medication or preventive medicine” to prevent cerebral ischemia. In this type of stroke, brain oxygen levels are too low; which can trigger a cascade of biological events leading to brain damage and death. Caterpillar fungus prevents or protects against this type of brain stroke (“ischemia-induced brain infarction”), presumably by inducing or modulating production of a steroid, 17beta-estradiol.
Cordyceps sinensis mushrooms growing out of golden caterpillar bodies are sometimes artfully and decoratively displayed in high-end Chinese herbal shops. Caterpillar fungus achieved some notoriety when it was revealed to be a dietary supplement for Chinese athletes bringing home gold and silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“In China, this fungus is usually called ‘Dong Chong Xia Cao,’ which means ‘Worm in winter and grass in summer,’” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University. “This insect parasitizing fungus lives primarily on the head of the larva of one particular species of moth, Hepialus armoricanus Oberthur (Lepidoptera), but is occasionally found growing on other moth species. Cordyceps was first introduced to Western society during the 17th century. In 1878 Saccardo, an Italian scholar, named Cordyceps derived from China officially as Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc., and this nomenclature has been adopted up to the present day.”
At a Nepal Overseas Entomologists members symposium at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Nov. 2012, at the Convention Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bhishma Subedi of the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) screened a 20-30 minute documentary film as part of a talk titled, “Cordyceps sinensis a natural viagara(sic) from the mountains of Nepal.” Even the other Nepali entomologists in attendance learned something new, as the caterpillar fungus is found only in remote Himalayan Mountain locales; and it is not common knowledge, even in Nepal.
Known in Nepal by its Tibetan name, yarsagumba, caterpillar fungus is well-hidden; blending like a camouflaged black joss stick into black soils and grasses on slightly north-facing (5-10 degrees) Himalayan slopes 3,200 to 4,500 meters (10,500 to 14,800 ft) high. Yarsagumba lands are several days trek from anyplace where people normally live, and the ground is covered in snow 6 months of the year. But this is where temporary high-mountain camps must be set up for hunting the difficult-to-find caterpillar fungus.
Searching for the camouflaged black and debris-covered yarsagumba means crawling on hands and knees or bending over among short grasses and melted snow. Men search for yarsagumba and other medicinal herbs in the vicinity, while women stay behind and maintain the base camps. A certain Buddhist purity is maintained in yarsagumba lands; there is no alcohol, no tobacco and no shouting, loud voices or arguing. People pray, and the first yarsagumba found is offered to the Gods.
The beauty of the mountains belie the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of the life in search of yarsagumba; it’s a tough way to earn money in these remote mountains where economic opportunities are few. Storms can come at any time, and it is easy to fall down a steep cliff when climbing in the snow. A fall near a cliff edge can mean loss of limbs and frequently death. There are no second chances, no safety nets to catch you up here. Medical treatment is do-it-yourself, by necessity. Conventional medicine and doctors are many days distant. Widows are commonplace at all ages; and many subsistence families in Nepal have lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sons during the search for yarsagumba and medicinal herbs that may help others prevail against brain strokes and other maladies.
It takes seven cleanings with a toothbrush to remove all the debris and black soil, and make the black yarsagumba look like a proper insect, namely a golden caterpillar. The going price from the middlemen is 80,000 rupees per kilo; with 3,500 to 4,000 pieces of clean golden caterpillars per kilo. It takes five people a month to find a kilo. People are doing well to come out of the season with 60,000 rupees, before the expenses of the trek and weeks or months of camp costs. Recently, the Nepal government imposed a 20,000 rupee per kilo tax or royalty on the trade.
After being steamed and packaged, most of the yarsagumba eventually is exported and finds its way to the Chinese market. The yarsagumba trade is estimated at 2 tons annually. But in Nepal, since the government-imposed 20,000 rupee/kilo royalty or tax went into effect, it was like the yarsagumba harvest had become illegal for Nepal’s subsistence mountain people. Royalties were paid on only 3 kilos in a recent year. Perhaps there is a free market and tax lesson in all this. Or perhaps it is just part of the great wheel of life.