The month of May, with the melting of the snows in High Himalayas, villagers of Darchula District, Nepal and villagers of the far western region, Nepal trek up to the Strange High Himalayas to pick an unknown type of mushroom, Yarsagumba also known as Cordyceps. They stay of almost eight weeks searching for the Himalayan gold crawling through the lands, digging with their bare hands with the utmost care, braving the cold and harsh environment.
Cordyceps, aka Yarsagumba, is a unique, world’s most expensive caterpillar-fungus. Cordyceps scientific name, Cordyceps Sinensis is a mummified ghost moth caterpillar that lives underground when it’s alive. Once Ophiocordyceps Sinensis fungus infects the caterpillar, it turns into half fungus and a half caterpillar that pops out a dark-brown fungal stalk outside the soil.
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps, Yarsagumba is called “Yartsa Gunbu” in Tibet, which translates to summer grass and winter worm. Yarsagumba is found at the altitudes of between 3000 and 5000 meters above sea level in Nepal, India, Bhutan and the Tibetan Plateau.
On the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, a caterpillar, ghost moth caterpillars, lives underground eating plant roots until they get infected with the fungus or a parasitic mushroom spores, Ophiocordyceps Sinensis. Once ghost moth caterpillar is infected, the fungus eats the caterpillar inside out in the summer or autumn. Then the caterpillar crawls up just below the surface of the soil where it dies. In the spring, a long dark-brown fungal stalk bursts from the head of the caterpillar that pops out through the ground that infects other caterpillars which are called as Cordyceps or Yarsagumba and the cycle continues. The two to six centimeter long dark brown fungus acts as a tiny finger-shaped flag for harvesters to find.
Once the Cordyceps is harvested it is left to dry before brushing off the soil and outer layer of the herb. The Yarsagumba cannot be cleaned as soon as it is harvested if you do it turns dark and the dark Yarsagumba will not get a good price. A toothbrush is used the next day to clean the herb. Once it’s cleaned, Yarsagumba looks exactly like a golden herb.
The hybrid herb is the world’s most expensive biological resource, so, it’s called The Himalayan Gold. A kg of Himalayan Fungus costs USD 20000 to as much as USD 130000 .
History of Yarsagumba
Cordyceps has a long history of medical use in China. It is thought to have been discovered more than 2000 years ago. In an ancient time, it is believed the kings and nobleman to take Yarsagumba as a potent tonic. However, Cordyceps first gained its popularity worldwide when it was revealed that several Chinese runners who broke previous world records during the World Athletics Championship in 1993 had included Cordyceps as their diet during their training program.
Where are Cordyceps Found?
The herb is found in high snowy mountains above 5000m. Currently, China is the largest producer of Yarsagumba producing 83 to 183 tons of Yarsagumba followed by Nepal. Annually Nepal produces three tons of Cordyceps followed India, and Bhutan. When the herbs are not collected in the season, they rot away. The harvesting season of Yarsagumba lasts from May to the first half of July. It is really difficult to harvest Yarsagumba as it is way too small and can be mistaken with other dried plant steam. So, harvesters need to crawl to the ground and pluck the fungus carefully out of the soil. However, reaching the place where they harvest Yarsagumba is much more challenging. As they have to travel through the Rocky Mountains, slippery, and snowing mountain, many people lose their lives and many gets injured due to falling.
Risk of Harvesting Yarsagumba
For some villagers, the harvest of Cordyceps has brought great wealth; however, at the same time, it has also brought great misery. In Nepal, villagers are divided into groups and let them harvest in their separated area. And the locals don’t allow other people other than their group harvest and collect Yarsagumba in their area. In June 2009 seven men from the Gorkha Nepal who came to harvest Yarsagumba were murdered by the locals.
Each year, hundreds of Tibetan traders cross the border illegally into Nepal to buy Yarsagumba to sell back to China illegally.
The path harvesters walk is very challenging. They need to travel through stiff mountains, snowy regions, and slippery lands. In the harvest season, many people lose their lives walking the Rocky Mountains and wet grounds, and many get seriously injured.
The rising demand for C.Sinensis worldwide has an impact on the biodiversity and ecosystem. As the demand increased, the harvest of the fungus also increased. In a survey of 200 harvesters in Dolpa. Western Nepal, where more than 40% of total fungus yield in the country has a significant drop of trade of Yarsagumba by 50 percent. The villagers are spending more extended time on the field, collecting fewer C.Sinensis.
How much does Yarsagumba Cost?
Sinensis is available in the United States in the form of oil and as a tonic. The current price of C. Sinensis is $29 for 200 Capsule of 750 mg each. Click Here to find the current price. But if you want to get the unprocessed Yarsagumba, it will cost more. Looking back to history, in the late ’80s, in Nepal, the price of each kg of unprocessed C. Sinensis was just Rs.700, that is just USD 7 per kg. The harvesters would only get a Rupee or two for a piece of C. Sinensis that is roughly around a cent per fungus. However, as the demand increased, the price of Yarsagumba skyrocketed.
In the year 2002, the price of C.Sinensis increased to US$ 1500 and the price has been shooting up as the international demand increased till date. Cordyceps is worth as much as US$ 100 per gram in China. Yes, you heard me right, US $ 100 per gram, more expensive than gold. Today Cordyceps in unprocessed form cost over US$ 20000 to US$ 100000 in the international market.
Why is the fungus so expensive? It’s simple, as the demand increases supply decreases, which leads to the increasing price of the product. Yarsagumba is harvested in limited numbers. Also, the risk people take to collect the fungus is also another factor. You can only harvest the C. Sinensis in May to mid-July, and due to global warming harvesting, Yarsagumba is limited and much more difficult now.
Why is the Demand of Cordyceps High?
In an ancient time, it is believed the kings and nobleman to take Yarsagumba as a potent tonic. Cordyceps Sinensis is a powerful immune booster which stimulates the immune system by increasing the number of natural cell killer, which protect the body from bacteria and viruses. Yarsagumba is used for excess tiredness, backache, to increase sperm production, and blood production, chronic cough, to build bone marrow, anemia, and many more. Read more about the health benefits of Yarsagumba in our previous article. It is also believed that the fungus can cure for sexual impotence, so it’s also called as The Himalayan Viagra. The health benefits of the “Himalayan Viagra” is yet to be proven. However, as the use of the fungus dates back to 2000 years, people believe it cures everything from impotence to cancer.
Nutrients in C. Sinensis
Sinensis is high in medicinal value. The herb is rich with a variety of beneficial nutrients, and minerals. Cordyceps consists of Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, B2, B6, B12, Cordycepin, Cordycepin acid, D-mannitol, SOD, fatty acid, polysaccharide, nucleotide protein, serien, zinc, copper, and many more.