Himalayan Gold – the mystery of Cordyceps sinensis
The fungus cordyceps (or Cordyceps sinensis) has been known as an effective tonic and aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine and is increasingly used in China as a popular dietary supplement and medicine. Caterpillar fungus and Winter Worm – Summer Grass and keera ghas – these are the common names used for the highly prized Chinese tonic herb Cordyceps which gained international publicity in mainstream publications a few years back because of its use by Chinese women athletes breaking world Olympic running records. In ancient China, this fungus was used exclusively in the Emperor’s Palace because of its scarcity.
Cordyceps is also renowned within other international markets, and is available in several countries around the world where it is sold in different forms.
The meadows of the Western Himalaya are the spring-summer hunting grounds of Himalayan villagers who come here in search of the elusive Cordyceps sinenesis – a fungus that grows out of a moth caterpillar which is collected here and sold in China and elsewhere at a very high cost, as a performance enhancing and rejuvenating medicine.
In India, Cordyceps – locally called “Keera ghas” is a main source of income for highlanders. It grows at an altitude of 3,900 – 5,400 m above sea level during the months of May through to July.
Many villagers across the western Himalaya — young and old, men and women — walk every spring-summer day along the steep paths that lead to the collecting areas. The collectors lie on the ground over the high-altitude expanses, attentively scanning the terrain. The task is difficult; requiring concentration and patience, as the fungus is so small that it cannot be easily seen amongst the dwarf Rhododendron shrubs and various alpine meadow vegetation. But villagers generally like to perform this work since it is not very difficult compared to their daily farm work, the enterprise highly profitable, and because they like spending time together in the mountains with other villagers. The collectors proceed slowly on hands and knees carefully scanning the area in front of them, keeping their faces close to the ground. The Cordyceps is carefully extracted from the soil with ones’ hand with small sticks. Some collectors say that they may even find 10 to 20 worms a day depending on their luck. At the end of the day, they come back to their high-altitude meadow abutting camps and clean the Cordyceps with a toothbrush and then store it by their camp fires, to dry. The caterpillar fungus is worth over 10 million US dollars a ton in Asian wholesale markets. It is like gold for these collectors.
What a strange world we live in where a repulsive looking fungus growing out of the moribund dead body of a caterpillar can be worth tens of millions of US dollars, with the dream of enhancing one’s performance or quality of life!
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