A tiny mushroom grows out of the head of a moth caterpillar. Thousands of people spend their summers crawling around remote hillsides searching for these elusive phenomenon. Chinese middlemen fly in by helicopter and offer thousands of dollars per kilo. Businessmen part with great amounts of money and consume the product for the apparently excellent aphrodisiac properties.
You couldn’t make it up, but its all true.
Yarchagumba (Cordyceps sinensis) is actually a combination of one of Nepal’s most famous flora and fauna. Caterpillar fungi are the result of a parasitic relationship between the larva of the ghost moth and the fungus Cordyceps sinensis. The fungus germinates within the larva of the ghost moth, killing and mummifying the insect. Over time the fungus will grow out of the insect’s body and then grow into a small mushroom that can be used in many types of medicinal concoctions.
Rarity and Remoteness
Because the larva is only vulnerable at high altitudes, between 3,000 and 5,000m, Yarchargumba is a rare herb that is quite hard to find and difficult to harvest. Yarchagumba is so valuable, that during the Nepali Civil War the government and the Maoists fought to control areas where it could be harvested. In 2008, a kilogram of high quality yarchagumba could sell for over $18,000 in foreign markets. Collectors received NPR 180/piece (US$2.50) and one kilogramme of yarchagumba consisits of 2500-3000 pieces. “A friend of mine who went to Japan and went to one restaurant where they were selling a vegetable soup with three yarchagumba floating on top and the price was a hundred dollars per bowl of soup.” says a Singaporean trader in a short but fascinating radio documentary on Yarchagumba . Even today control over yarchagumba-rich land and harvesting rights is a point of contention for villages and communities.
Uses in medicine
Yarchagumba is widely used in both Chinese and Tibetan medicinal traditions. It is known to have an excellent balance of Yin and Yang since it is both “vegetable” and animal. Most commonly it is used as an aphrodisiac but can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments from fatigue to cancer. The fungus contains many pharmacologically active substances which are now cultivated on an industrial scale for widespread use.
Found: Many places across Nepal, notably western Nepal and Dolpa.
For more information about Yarchagumba (cordyceps sinensis or now ophiocordyceps sinensis) or ”Summer Herb, Winter Worm”, please visit the website of Daniel Winkler.