About Cordyceps sinensis

C. sinensis known as 'yarsa gumba' in Tibet and Nepal, but it is known in the West primarily from its use in Chinese medicine. Its name in Chinese (dong cong xia cao) translates literally as "worm in winter, plant in summer", commonly abbreviated as dong cong cao. The Chinese believe that dong cong cao is a caterpillar in winter, but that in the summer it grows into a plant. This general ignorance regarding the nature of Cordyceps means great profits for the unscrupulous; I have seen dried caterpillars on sale in Chinese medicine halls with no visible cordyceps attached.

Mycology & Taxonomy

Kingdom Fungus
Phylum Ascomycota
Subphylum Ascomycotina
Class Pyrenomycetes
Order Clavicipitales
Family Clavicipiteae

The fungi of genus Cordyceps are parasites of insects. C. sinensis is a parasite of the caterpillar of moths of the genus Hepialus. The caterpillar lives in underground tunnels, emerging at night to feed on roots. The fungus grows and invades the body of the caterpillar, eventually killing and mummifying it. The black fruiting body (or mushroom) emerges from the ground in the spring time, always arising from the head of the dead caterpillar.

The asexual stage (anamorph) is Hirsutella sinensis (Chen 2001). Identification of the asexual stage was difficult until the advent of molecular methods; but we now know that Cordyceps sinensis and Hirsutella sinensis are simply different stages in the life cycle of the same organism. Previous identifications with Paecilomyces sinensis, Staphybotrys sp. and Tolypocladium sp. are proven to be incorrect.

The sexual stage (teleomorph) which is Cordyceps sinensis has never been successfully grown, and commercial preparations therefore use the asexual stage, because that can be produced in quantity.

Ecology & Economy

Cordyceps sinensis is native to the Himalayas and most of the world supply of cordyceps comes from Tibet, Nepal and India. The fungus exists in the wild in very difficult terrain, which explains the high price it commands. It normally exists only at altitudes above 4000 meter and tends to grow where yaks graze.

C. sinensis is traded commerically, but most of the trade is not reported or regulated in any fashion. It has not so far been possible to culture C. sinensis for its fruiting body. The quality of the ingredients is extremely variable and any number of alternative products are sold under the banner of 'Cordyceps sinensis,' e.g. C. militaris or even dried caterpillars with no active ingredient. The current price for a kilogram of C. sinensis is US$800 to US$1500 per kilogram.

The body of Yarsagumba contains:- cordycepin acid, cordycepin, D-mannitol, polysaccharide, SOD, Fatty Acid, nucleocide Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, B2, B6, B12, serien, zinc, copper,carbohydrates etc: Cardycepin and cordycepic acid are the main constituents.

The major areas of natural distribution in Nepal:

Nepalese Yarsa Gumba has been regarded one of the best in its quality. The major areas of natural distribution of Yarsagumba in Nepal include Dolpa, Rolpa, Rukum, Humla, Mugu, Darchula, Bajhang, Bajura, Mustang, Manang ,(Annapurna conservation area), Rasuwa, Dolakha, Olanchokgola and Kanchanjanga Himalayan region. The best season to collect Yarsa Gumba in Nepal is June and July.

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