Yarsagumba Explorations: On The Trail of Wild-Growing Cordyceps Mushroom in Nepal.
INTRODUCTION: The Spore Lands
I first encountered the strange strange organism that is wild-growing cordyceps mushroom while getting lost in a series of Ron Teeguarden’s Dragon Herbs YouTube videos. Ron Teeguarden travels the world to discover all sorts of eccentric yet incredibly powerful plant medicines and bring them to the United States.
The video showed the wild cordyceps mushroom (or yarsagumba, as it is known by locals) harvest taking place in Bhutan. The harvesters were 4000 meters up on the grassy slope of some unidentified Himalayan massif. They were spread out in the field, crawling on their bellies, faces inches from the snowy ground. Every so often they would throw their hands up and cheer, and then heads would go down again.
I remember thinking to myself at the time: “what on earth could be so valuable that it would bring an entire village to crawl across a mountainside?”
The answer, of course, was yarsagumba, and villagers spend weeks every year searching for this elusive fungus.
But I still didn’t know WHY.
My recent trip to Nepal has answered that question. I’ve learned that yarsagumba is more intriguing than I could have ever imagined, a rare mushroom that has become a fixture in the global holistic medicine industry. At the same time, it is still surrounded by plenty of mystery, including: murder, the promise of male virility, deaths by harvesters each season, cancer curing, and many dead caterpillars.
Cordyceps sinensis is a mushroom that annually sprouts at certain elevations in the Himalaya (Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India) -- I have heard from 3,500 to 4,500 meters. Yarsagumba has an incredibly strange lifespan. It starts out as a fungus infecting a certain species of caterpillar. The fungus takes over the caterpillar’s body, eventually killing it. Once the caterpillar is dead, yarsagumba emerges as new life like a Himalayan butterfly, blooming one or two inches above the frosty mountain ground. Here is an informative video with more information if you’re interested.
Wild-growing yarsagumba is renowned in Chinese medicine, and is at least 4 times more expensive, per gram, than gold. For example, in this picture of B-grade cordyceps, one piece will retail in Nepal for around $15. A-grade will fetch around $20, with prices dramatically increasing when the product is exported to China or other Asian countries. Cordyceps is popular in the United States, although all supplements you’ll find are not wild-growing, but instead a different species of the mushroom called cordyceps militarsis.
When talking to Nepalis about yarsagumba, people have told me that it is essentially a miracle-producing mushroom. People take it for anything that ails them, helping with chronically low energy levels, fighting cancer, faulty immune systems, and most famously, problems of male virility.
IN NEPAL: The Fruiting Body Emerges
So, thanks to Ron Teeguarden, I learned all about the underground (or, slightly above-ground) world that is wild cordyceps. But I forgot about it for a couple of years, until I was 3000 meters high in the Himalaya walking around the Annapurna peaks. While reading a book about Nepal, I learned that the harvest of yarsagumba is a massive revenue producer for the country. And suddenly, it all came flashing back.
I immediately asked my guide and friend, Bikram, if he knew anything about yarsagumba. He responded with a twinkle in his eye and a smile with a hidden meaning, the same kind of response I got from all Nepalis when I asked about the mushroom.
“Oh yes they have plenty of that up here. I’m sure you can find some in this village. You know what it does, right?”
He was referring to the male virility part of it. I was less interested in that than the overall health benefits, and the unlikely industry that has emerged around this 2-inch long mushroom.
“I’m aware. But its supposed to also just be really healthy. Who could I talk to about it?”
“Try the people at our guest house. I bet they have some.”
Thus began my odyssey of yarsagumba exploration in Nepal, talking to any person that looked like they even remotely knew anything about the mushroom.
The Nepalis that ran the guest house were familiar with yarsagumba, but didn’t have any on hand. They did, however, point me in the direction of a villager who still had some for sale. And, even more exciting, they invited me to come back a month later and participate in the annual harvest, which occurs from mid-May to mid-June. All I would have to do is pay for my lodging and food, as well as a small offering to the village (around $70) if I wanted to harvest yarsagumba myself. Money, I found out, is a theme that follows yarsagumba like a shadow. Any conversation I had with someone eventually turned to the enormous costs surrounding the mushroom, largely due to the limited supply and high demand in East Asian countries
Like Sherlock Holmes I pursued the trail, and tracked down the villager who had yarsagumba for sale. He ran another guest house, and remarked that, as this was just before harvest season, the only stock they had left was preserved in home-made local wine. He pointed to a row of small vodka bottles, that had each been re-filled with roxy (see my tea post for a more detailed explanation about this Nepali wine) and a single yarsagumba mushroom. They all had sank to the bottom of their bottles, looking conspicuously like a worm in a jug of mescal.
I had to buy one. Even though a single bottle cost around $15 -- a huge price in Nepal, where a room for a night can go for $5 and a big dinner $2 -- I wrote it off as general scientific pursuit of knowledge. The proprietor also invited me to come back for harvest season and join the village in their search. So, within only two hours of looking for this mushroom, I had two invitations to return, a bottle of roxy, and a single piece of wild cordyceps.
As our trek around Annapurna continued, I kept asking people about cordyceps , and I got roughly the same answer.
“Come back in a month” they said. “We will have plenty of yarsagumba, and you can come see the harvest. But it is dangerous”.
I carried the bottle around with me for the next couple of weeks as I travelled through Nepal. Every so often, I would have a small sip of the local wine with this strange mushroom at the bottom, and it would inevitably spark interest with Nepali friends. All conversations would center around the same topic: very expensive, hard to find, powerful medicine, dangerous, and **wink wink** can help with man problems down there.
I had 3 days left in Nepal when I finally consumed it. The recommended way to ingest wild growing cordyceps is to simmer it in hot milk or water for 20 minutes. Drink the liquid, and then eat the mushroom, chewing it as slowly as possible.
The yarsagumba tasted, unsurprisingly, like a mushroom had mated with a caterpillar. Small price to pay though, if you ask me, for a complete revolution in bodily health.
And within 30 minutes of eating it, I did start to feel something. It wasn’t an overwhelming sense of energy, nothing like drinking 3 cups of coffee or a whole gourd of yerba mate. It was more a subtle feeling of personal well-being, as if each of my cells had slightly expanded and were processing a little more oxygen. Or as if my neurons were firing a bit more rapidly and thoughts came easier, quicker, deeper. I didn’t have a chance to test out the male virility claims, but its not hard to imagine it would help out in that area as well.
After this experience, my interest was piqued even more. Unfortunately, a tight travel schedule didn’t allow me to return to high elevation for the harvest, so I instead spent a whole day in Kathmandu following the trail of yarsagumba. It led me into herbal medicine shops where they pulled out secret jars from under the counter, to display their depleted yet still impressive stock of cordyceps. When I started asking more probing questions about where they got it from and who were their biggest customers, the shopkeepers would turn quiet.
Surprisingly, in a country where the majority of information travels by word of mouth, an internet search gave me the most fruitful of results. Google took me to a honey store that was doubling as a yarsagumba and medicinal herb wholesale business. One of the owners was sympathetic to my strange curiosity, and we talked for hours.
Their cordyceps comes from a small community in the Mt. Everest region. They have one buyer who has been visiting the town for years, and buys cordyceps in bulk from the village. When he travels up there, he has to make the trip with an armed guard.
Just imagine -- everyone knows you’re a yarsagumba buyer, and that you'll be travelling up to the mountain with thousands of dollars to buy product. You’ll be returning with a small box or two worth that same amount. When the average monthly wage is around $150-200, such a sum can be quite tempting for someone struggling to feed their family. Foreigners and Nepalis have been killed over cordyceps, and there are many stories of someone’s harvest bag going suspiciously missing at the end of the day.
Wild cordyceps is separated into grades, from A+ down to D. The A+ are fat golden specimens, while Cs and Ds are more shriveled and brown. The honey store sold most of their yarsagumba to rich Chinese and Indians, who either bought for personal consumption or to resell in their own countries. For large quantities, there is always a lengthy bargaining process that can take days -- it reminded me of the rug selling business in Morocco.
They also recommended that, to truly receive the benefits of yarsagumba, one should ingest it daily for two straight weeks. After taking it only once and already feeling the effects, I can only imagine what 14 mushrooms would do to my state of being...
We talked more about the general history of the industry and export options around the world. It would be an incredible adventure to start selling wild cordyceps in the USA, but I’m skeptical if it would really take off (side note though: if you want some, I know a guy!).
I left Nepal with the seed planted in my mind, and many more questions than I had arrived with.
Literally worth more than its weight in gold, and carrying the promise of life-changing and life-giving properties, cordyceps had struck a chord in my imagination. I’d been involved in the natural food world for 5+ years, and I’d never seen anything like this before.
I have a strong inkling that this is only the beginning of my journey with cordyceps. Like the caterpillar, it infected me at high elevations. All I can hope is that this relationship gives me life, instead of consuming me, leaving my body to rot on an unidentified slope of some towering Himalayan massif.