Where Does It Come From?
Wild Cordyceps is a true curiosity of nature. It is a mushroom (fungus) attached to the “mummified” (transformed) remains of a caterpillar (Hepialus armoricanus, the Himalayan Bat Moth), upon which it has grown. Hepialus armoricanus and Cordyceps sinensis have evolved together over millions of years. The Latin name Cordyceps comes from the words cord, meaning "club," and ceps, meaning "head.” It is thus a “club fungus.” A whitish mycelium (main fungus body) grows around the caterpillar and invades it. By the time the mushroom is mature, there is little or nothing left of the actual caterpillar body. The outer mycelium is always peeled off in the field, revealing the caterpillar “mummy” which maintains the appearance of the caterpillar. The outer mycelium is discarded and is not used as part of the herb. This is a very strange looking “herb,” indeed. Since it has transformed from animal to mushroom, Cordyceps is generally considered to be a fungus, and is even considered to be vegetarian by most Himalayan Buddhists.
Wild Cordyceps is collected early each summer at the snow line of Himalayan peaks, primarily in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and China. The environment in which it grows is extremely harsh. Wild Himalayan Cordyceps is only found at altitudes above 11,500 feet above sea level, with the best Wild Cordyceps collected at higher altitudes up to 18,000 feet. There is little oxygen at this altitude and UV radiation is intense. Daily temperatures often fluctuate by 40 to 70 degrees F°. Even during the summer collection season, snow showers occur frequently and night frost is generally the rule. Only a few species of animals and certain very hardy plants have adapted to this environment over many millennia. Cordyceps normally exists only at altitudes between 3300m- 4800m and tends to grow where yaks graze.
The snow line is devoid of trees, and is a “grassy” zone of low lying alpine herbs and vegetation. It is usually quite rocky. Humans do not live at this altitude and even the hardy Himalayan natives find this environment challenging. Most foreigners who venture to the snowline experience altitude sickness. Those who are not accustomed to this altitude often find it daunting. Furthermore, since the environment can easily be damaged by clumsy clod-hopping behavior, non-natives are generally prohibited from trampling through most Cordyceps hunting areas in Tibet. Foreigners rarely make it to the Cordyceps collecting areas in Bhutan because it takes seven days on foot and by yak, horse or mule from the end of the last road to get there, and seven days back to the road.
Just prior to the summer rainy season, spores of cordyceps mushroom land on the Himalayan caterpillars that live on moist grass and hollow ground. Spread by the wind, the spores of the Cordyceps sinensis fungus come into contact with Bat Moth caterpillars, particularly when the caterpillars emerge to feed.
The caterpillars may eat the spores, or the spores can become stuck on their bodies. The caterpillar crawls back into the ground. If the spores germinate, they enter the caterpillars’ bodies through the mouth or the respiratory pores. The fungus first paralyzes the caterpillar, then the mycelium invades the caterpillar’s body, killing the caterpillar, filling its body cavity, and eventually completely replacing the host tissue. After being “infected” or “invaded” by the fungus, the caterpillar “mummy” remains in the soil, encased in a coat of white mycelium.
As temperature increases, the snow melts – and soon thereafter the Cordyceps emerges. The stroma (mushroom fruiting body) grows up from spring to early summer, emerging above ground, hidden among other low lying plants.
Cordyceps, the Caterpillar Fungus, emerges in April in Bhutan. But April picking can be very destructive to the Cordyceps sinensis population as the ascospores are not yet dispersed and this could lead to eventual loss of Cordyceps from the ecosystem. April picking is prohibited throughout the Himalayas, though poachers don’t follow any rules.
Most Cordyceps have one stroma, though an occasional Cordyceps may have two. The stroma protrudes and develops out of the caterpillar’s forehead and is typically 1 to 2 inches long. The club-shaped stroma is a dark, rusty brown color. Under a microscope one can see that the fresh stroma bears many small fruiting bodies that contain the asci, which are sacs where spores are formed. If left uncollected, the spores are distributed in the early summer.
Upon drying, the length of the caterpillar mummy varies roughly from 1 to 2 inches long and appears yellowish-brown in color, while the stroma varies from 1 to 2 inches long and turns almost black.
And thus, “winter worm” becomes “summer grass” – the transformation is complete. Harvest period is short because the monsoon rains come in July. During monsoon, the Cordyceps is swept away.
Cordyceps Collecting in Bhutan
The growing season generally runs from the beginning of May until the end of June. After that period, the caterpillar mummy, which is embedded in the ground, rots. The weather is the great determinant of the harvest. And of course, it can be very unpredictable. If there is a lot of rain, there can be flooding and the ground can become so wet that much of the cordyceps rots without being collected. It can also cause flooding of rivers that must be traversed on the trip to and from the collecting zones, making them very dangerous or impossible to cross, thus restricting the flow of collectors to the collecting regions.
Weather permitting, the harvest can proceed for about a month or a month and a half each spring-summer. In Tibet, new paved roads have been built going up to the collecting zones and permanent campsites have been constructed, especially at the lower elevation sites. In Bhutan and Nepal, road construction has not had the same financial backing, and the regions are more rugged. There are no roads – just narrow, muddy trails winding through Himalayan passes, some featuring precipices with no railings and thousand foot drops. The collecting season is set by law in Bhutan, and runs for just one month through the month of June. This protects the collectors, the environment and the sustainability of the Cordyceps. Tibet has similar rules. As a result of these limitations on the collecting season, the amount of Cordyceps has remained stable.
Protecting Valuable Cordyceps
Because of the value of Bhutanese Cordyceps, there has been a problem that dates back decades with poachers crossing over from Tibet and picking Bhutanese Cordyceps. The Bhutanese government now puts soldiers along the border between Tibet and Bhutan during the spring and summer. The Bhutanese Minister of Agriculture told me that “poaching by the Tibetans is serious as they pick whatever comes their way with inappropriate tools. Early picking goes counter to our country’s principles of sustainability.” The spores must be released before harvesting can begin, otherwise the Cordyceps population could simply disappear. Since they are released by the end of May, June has been set as the month for collecting.
In Bhutan, the collectors travel and work in groups of from 10 to 30 people, both men and women. Most of them are farmers from relatively high altitude areas below the Cordyceps collecting zones. They have the lungs, cardiovascular systems, endurance and mentality (incredible patience, concentration and ability to be careful for many hours on end, for days on end) to collect wild Cordyceps. They may split up into small groups of two or three, or form lines of six to twelve people. Some will search on their own.
The collectors lie almost flat on the ground, scanning the area in front of them. The search for the tiny cordyceps in this high altitude is a difficult task, requiring virtually Zen-like concentration and patience. The stroma of the fungus emerging above the soil are so small that they are virtually invisible except to the highly skilled collectors. The ground is covered with short plants, much of which is the same brownish color as the Cordyceps. Gatherers I have talked to claim that the Cordyceps wiggles, as though being blown in the wind, in a manner different from the plants around them, but scholars say this is not possible. The hunt is often complicated by rain or snowfall. It is always cold (generally slightly above freezing in the daytime). They keep their faces close to the ground, carefully scanning the area in front of them. If they do find one and pluck it from the ground, or if they do not locate any cordyceps, they proceed slowly on their hands and knees. Relying on experience and instinct, they stand up from time to time and move to a nearby area to continue their search. They are extremely careful to move extremely slowly so as not to step on any cordyceps. When the collecting is complete, it is barely noticeable that humans have been there.
If the soil is moist and soft, the Bhutanese gatherers have the skill to simply pluck the Cordyceps from the ground with their fingers, without breaking it. They are meticulous and each Cordyceps is a joyful triumph. If the gatherer is less skillful or if the soil is hard, they may extract it from the soil with a small knife or stick. In Bhutan, fingers are the preferred tool (see the video), while in Tibet a small trowel is most commonly used. It is important not to damage the Cordyceps, because a broken Cordyceps is of less value on the market (though it may be no less valuable in the soup pot).
Our Dragon Herbs Wild Cordyceps comes from Bhutan. First of all, collecting Cordyceps is a very special enterprise, and the Bhutanese gatherers obviously love it. Despite the trouble of getting to the growing areas, Bhutanese Cordyceps gatherers are happy to perform this work. Bhutanese people are generally very happy anyway, and Cordyceps collecting is a special event for them. They definitely seem to enjoy the teamwork and quality time that they spend together, since most of the year they work their own farms. It is also highly profitable. For most of the collectors, the money they earn spending a few days at the snow line, once or twice each season, provides them with more money than they can earn in an entire year from their farms. Bhutanese people, being very devout Buddhists, tend to be quite peaceful and understand contentment. The Cordyceps harvest provides them with enough money to live very contented lives.
A typical gatherer might find ten Cordyceps a day, and some lucky or skilled gatherers may find as many as twenty or thirty or even forty. If weather is bad, however, finding just five in one day might be satisfying. Since whole families can go collecting, and even whole villages, following a royal command issued by the King of Bhutan in 2004, the cumulative profit can be substantial for the collectors.
The Mountain Journey