Interested mycophiles often ask, “what is cordyceps mushroom all about?” Today I am going through some of the history associated with two popular strains of cordyceps
What is cordyceps? Cordyceps is a genus of mushrooms located in the ascomycota phylum. The latin name breaks down into “cord” and “ceps,” meaning “club” and “head.” Presumably, a club fungus fruiting out of the head of an insect. The life cycle is radically different from most cultivated mushrooms, which are located in the phylum basidiomycota.
Cordyceps have an asexual reproduction stage, which allows them to skip making a fruiting body to produce spores. This is one reason why cultivation of cordyceps can be difficult; not all wild isolates will create fruiting bodies. Strain selection is vital in proper cultivation of cordyceps.
Cordyceps as a common name typically refers to two species of mushroom, but scientifically it refers to a genus with over 400 species of mushrooms in it. This is the challenge with using common names; most of the time they apply to many different mushrooms. The two primary ones that are typically being referred to when people say “cordyceps” is Cordyceps sinensis (renamed in 2007 to be Ophiocordyceps sinensis) and Cordyceps militaris.
What is cordyceps mania all about? There is a lot of debate as to whether these two mushrooms have similar amounts of compounds produced in them and if wild compared to cultivated mushrooms vary widely in compounds. Currently, the prices between the two show that one is valued much higher than the other. The craze for wild cordyceps has allowed prices to balloon with a kilogram in the US being sold at retail prices of $50,000! That is around $22,000 per pound!
Now you might understand what this craze for cultivation is about. Amazingly, though, cordyceps militaris grown in China is sold for $16/lb in the US. Some other common names for Cordyceps sinensis are: Caterpillar fungus, yartsa gunbu (translated as “winter worm, summer grass”) or dōng chóng xià cǎo in Chinese.
We refer to Cordyceps sinensis as yartsa gunbu. Common names for Cordyceps militaris have not been developed so we will call it cordyceps. This is part of the confusion around the cultivation and consumption of cordyceps; there is confusion as to what is being talked about when using the word cordyceps. Are we talking about the mushroom that sells for $22,000/lb or $16/lb?
What is cordyceps? Yartsa Gunbu history
This mushroom has been collected in the Tibetan plateau for centuries. It has only recently become a huge aspect of the economy in that area. Yartsa Gunbu grows on caterpillars in the shrub lands of the Himalayas. The fungus infects the caterpillars in the fall and over the winter consumes the body. During the spring Yartsa Gunbu puts up a fruiting body, which matures into the summer and sporulates in the late summer. The caterpillars in that region shed their skin and are most susceptible to infection during the late summer. Collectors typically go out in May and June to collect this fungus.
The economic value of Yartsa Gunbu since the late 1990s has been soaring. Over the ten years between 1998 and 2008 prices increased by 900%. Between 2008 and 2018, prices again increased by that much for larger specimens of Yartsa Gunbu. On average, the price is continuing to increase by 20% every year! Yartsa Gunbu accounts for almost 40% of the income for families in rural Tibet. This mushroom was first written about in a medicinal document written around 1450 in Tibet. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it first appeared in literature in 1694. The genus of Cordyceps was described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, but the introduction of Yartsa Gunbu to a western audience has been very recent, around the early 2000s.
What is cordyceps? Cordyceps militaris history
Cordyceps militaris has been named and renamed since 1753 until it found its current nomenclature in 1818 in Paris. Cordyceps grows throughout Europe and the United States but is more common east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. It is a parasitic mushroom that consumes insect larvae and pupae primarily of moths and butterflies.
Cultivation of this mushroom has been conducted in Asia much longer than in the United States. It seems cultivation started in the late 90’s and really exploded in Asia during the early 2000s. Many Youtube videos and training courses around cultivation of the mushroom have been developed in Thailand, China, Vietnam, and South Korea.
William Padilla-Brown, who was the technical advisor for this project and Ryan Gates were some of the first to grow fruiting bodies in the US. This was in late 2015 when they discovered a substrate and strain combination that produced fruiting bodies. Since then, strain and substrate trials have been conducted to find a combination that can produce commercially. William Padilla-Brown also offers courses on cordyceps cultivation.
Since early 2016, many other farms and growers in the U.S. have developed an interest in cultivating cordyceps. There are several farms looking to develop methods that allow commercial cultivation of cordyceps, but this is still in the beginning stages. These farms sell cordyceps for very high prices to a niche market or further process the mushrooms into a value-added product.
So, what is cordyceps mushroom all about? Hopefully you have a better understanding now.