Cordyceps sinensis is not your average edible fungus. The English name for it is “caterpillar fungus” while the Chinese calls it dong chong xia cao – winter insect, summer grass. The Tibetan dubs it yartsa gunbu while in Nepalase it is not really that varied; pronouncing it as yarsha gumba. Although it belongs in ascomycete fungi, Cordyceps is very unique; all species that belongs to this particular sac fungi are parasitic. They prey on worms, insects and other arthropods, hence the name. Currently some species in genus Cordyceps has been renamed as Ophiocordyceps due to DNA sampling that showed they are unrelated to other species in the genus. Not only that, they are also placed in new family Ophiocordycipitaceae and the infamous caterpillar fungus is now scientifically known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis.


While the world began to take notice of the existence of Cordyceps sinensis after 1993 sport scandal that happened in National Games in Beijing; the Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese have been using it since the 15th century. The habitat of Ophiocordyceps sinensis, still known as Cordyceps, spread on the Tibetan Plateau; they thrive in the high altitude, low temperature, low oxygen and semiarid grassland with 350 mm average annual precipitation.


Unlike ginseng where the mature root is prized for its purported medicinal values, the opposite is true for Cordyceps. Cordyceps is highly valuable when the fruiting body, is immature and has yet to disperse spores. Unfortunately, collecting immature Cordyceps causes declining of the species and so far the best way to ensure its survival is to let the already matured Cordyseps to remain undisturbed. Despite its ability to infect other arthropods, the ones that are collected for health use is mostly Cordyceps that infected species of white ghost moths from the genus Thitarodes (formerly known as Hepialus).


Cultivated Cordyceps versus naturally grown Cordyceps

While many naturally grown herbs are regarded as the best source of beneficial properties, it is sometimes not the same with Cordyceps. Truth is, the naturally occurring fungus is safe for consumption; the problem lies in how it is handled before being sold. Because Cordyceps is sold by weight, gatherers often insert twigs and even wires to increase the weight and gain more income. Unfortunately, if the twigs originated from poisonous plant or the wire is made of lead, contamination will happen and gradually the body accumulates high level of poison or lead that can pose serious health risk.


Current practice of cultivating Ophiocordyceps sinensis actually helps reducing the already rare species from declining in its natural habitat. Among the medium used to grow the fungus are silkworm residue, insect larvae and grains. However, cultivated Cordyceps do not produce fruiting body, only the mycelium; yet, analytical profile between the two is the same; as long as the artificial environment where the cultivated Cordyceps is grown replicate the low temperature and low oxygen air composition to match the high altitude climate of the Tibetan  Plateau. Therefore, when using cultivated Cordyceps, the mycelium is used in place of the fruiting body as functional ingredient.


For companies that use cultivated Ophiocordyceps sinensis as functional element in manufacturing any kind of products, be it supplement or functional food or beverages, there are still several steps need to be taken seriously because adulterated and counterfeit Cordyceps do exist and stringent screenings need to be done to ensure the quality and consistency of the functional ingredients.



MushRoaming, access on January 26, 2014


On the Trail of The Yak: Ancient Cordyceps in the Modern World,

John Holliday and Matt Cleaver

EarthPulse, access on January 26, 2014


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