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Nagqu Winterworm Summerherb: where to buy caterpillar fungus in Tibet

What is Caterpillar Fungus?

Known alternately as Yarsa-gumba, Yarsha-gumba or Yarcha-gumba, and with a biological name of “Ophiocordyceps Sinensis” (or just “cordyceps”), the caterpillar fungus is the most expensive parasite in the world, and one of the oldest herbal remedies in Chinese medicine. In Tibetan, the name is known as “dbyar rtswa dgun 'bu”, which literally means “winterworm, summergrass”, and it is found all across the plains and prairies of the plateau, as well as in other places in the Himalaya region.

The “ herbal remedy” is actually a parasitic fungus that spreads spores over the plain, which are ingested by the caterpillars of the Ghost Moth, and infect the body before the caterpillar’s burrow underground. Once infected, the caterpillars are eaten alive by the fungus, which takes over the entire host from the inside, eventually killing and mummifying the body into the stalks known as caterpillar fungus. As the caterpillar lives its last few moments, the fungus forces the body to the surface, where it continues to grow into the caterpillar fungus that can be found all over the Changtang Grasslands of Nagqu.

The fungus is normally found on the Tibetan plateau and across the Himalayas, at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 meters above sea level, and has been a major part of Chinese medicine since the 7th century BC. First recorded in around 620 BC, the fungus was thought to be a magical caterpillar that could change itself from animal to plant, and was popular as a royal remedy for many ailments throughout the Tang Dynasty and beyond.

Nagqu Cordyceps SinensisCordyceps Sinensis often grows in alpine climate, moist soil, forest meadow or lawn.

Classed as probably the most expensive medicine in the world, the caterpillar fungus is rated at its cheapest at around 30,000 US dollars per kilogram, which means it is worth its weight in gold. However, they are normally sold in Chinese measurements known as a “tael”, which is around 50 grams, so each tael costs around US$ 1,500. The thicker the caterpillar fungus, the more expensive it costs.

Growing on the plains of the plateau, the fungus is harvested by local Tibetans, who have to make sure that they get the entire fungus, including the leaves at the top of the dead caterpillar’s head and the stalk that extends underground. This is the proof that the caterpillar fungus is real. The fungus can be hard to spot among the grasses of the plain, since it normally only grows to lengths of around 4-5 centimeters. The demand for the fungus has risen so sharply over the past few decades that it is highly prized in Beijing. For the Tibetan nomads that harvest the fungus on the plateau, it is good news that it has become more popular in China, as it means a regular source of income for the thousands of people that spend their late summers on the plains of Nagqu collecting this “zombie” caterpillars.

Why Nagqu Caterpillar Fungus is better than the rest?

The caterpillar fungus has a specific set of requirements for it to survive and prosper, and these include the altitude, from 3,000 to 5,000 meters, the soil and caterpillar type, and the temperature. In Tibet, the fungus only attacks the caterpillars of the Ghost Moth or Bat Moth, a specific type of moth that is only found on the Tibetan plateau at high elevations. Nagqu has a huge population of ghost moth caterpillars that hatch every year, burrowing into the ground to feed and grow, which are often infected by the spores that are produced from the mature caterpillar fungus when the mushroom-like tip explodes.

Temperature plays a big part in the lifecycle of the fungus. While the fungus can survive at temperatures below freezing, it is unable to do so at temperatures above 18-20 degrees, which makes the Nagqu grasslands the ideal place to prosper. Temperatures in Nagqu rarely get as high as 20 degrees, and even at its hottest, the summer temperatures only reach around 15 degrees. - Know more about Nagqu Climate, Weather and Monthly Temperature

Medical value and health benefits of Caterpillar Fungus

As a herbal remedy for more than 2,600 years, the Chinese medicine that uses the fungus claims that it has many and varied medicinal properties that have been discovered over the millennia. In ancient China, the fungus was used as a medicinal mushroom that was used by emperors and the wealthy families of the royalty, and was believed to be so scarce that it was not permitted to be used by the common people. The fungus was highly prized for its purported medicinal benefits as a way of treating dysfunction and sexual impotency by boosting the libido.

Nagqu Winterworm SummerherbNagqu Winterworm Summerherb is one of the oldest herbal remedies in Chinese medicine.

In later years, as it was discovered to be more common on the plateau, it was used as a medicine for a variety of ailments, including problems with the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, and was even used to treat early cases of renal failure. In more modern times, it has been a huge part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), to treat the same ailments in different ways, as well as being believed to be beneficial for cancer patients to inhibit the spread of cancer cells. It has also been used by doctors of TCM to treat colds by boosting the immune system, and to alleviate severe lower back pain. It was also believed in the early 1900s to be able to treat opium addiction.

The purported health benefits of Cordyceps are wide-ranging and varied, and have been said to include enhancing energy levels, which was claimed when several Chinese female athletes broke the world Olympic records at the Beijing Olympics in 1993. As a wide-ranging medicine that can treat a host of different ailments, it could well be the “miracle” cure that western medicine has been looking for, and which has been used in TCM for more than 2,000 years.

How is Caterpillar Fungus cultivated in northern Tibet?

As the old fungus grows in the plains, the mushroom head of the fungus explodes, with the spores being spread in the late summer and autumn, and landing on the hatching eggs of the ghost moth, which lays its eggs in the grass of the plateau plains of the Changtang Grasslands in Nagqu. As the spores infect the caterpillars, they burrow underground to feed and grow, ready to pupate in the spring after hibernating for the winter.

It is this period of hibernation, due to the intense cold of the region, that gives the fungus chance to take hold inside the caterpillar’s body, and grow, eating the caterpillar alive from the inside through the winter. As spring comes, the caterpillar is forced up into the light, and the fungus continues to grow out of the dead caterpillar’s body as summer comes, producing the stalk-like bodies that are harvested by the Tibetan locals.

When and how to collect Caterpillar Fungus in Nagqu?

The fungus is harvested on the plateau by local Tibetans, mainly nomadic herders as they are more easily able to move from one area of the plains to another, and do not require special setups to stay on the plains of Nagqu for long periods of time. Harvesting has to be done carefully, as the buyers of the fungus require the head and stalk of the fungus to still be attached to the mummified body of the dead caterpillar.

Collecting the Caterpillar FungusLocal Tibetan is collecting the Caterpillar Fungus carefully.

The fungus is harvested before the spores are released, usually in around May and June, patrolling through the high pastures of Nagqu to find this elusive “plants” in among the grasses of the prairies. They then sell the funguses to the visiting traders that come into Tibet from mainland China, who sell them on through a chain of middlemen to the busy cities of China and Hong Kong.

How to consume Caterpillar Fungus?

There are several ways in which you can ingest the caterpillar fungus to help with the body’s ailments, and each method of ingestion correlates to a certain set of ailments. The most used way to ingest the fungus is to eat the whole mushroom in its original form, including the caterpillar part, though this may not be to everyone’s liking. For each dose, there should be 1-2 fungi eaten, without using any medium to help to swallow it.

Caterpillar Fungus SoupThe most popular way to eat Cordyceps Sinensis is to make the soup with chicken, duck, etc.

Another way to ingest the fungus is to boil it in water, where the fungus dissolves slightly into the water, making it easier to ingest. 2-3 fungi should be boiled in fresh water until the water is bubbling and reaches boiling point, then turned off and left for around 20 minutes to allow the fungus and the caterpillar to partially dissolve in the boiling water. The whole thing should then be drunk in one go immediately, and not left to stand for more than 20 minutes, as the cooling effect has a detrimental effect on the medicinal properties of the fungus.

For those that are really not inclined to eat the actual fungus and caterpillar, the medicine also comes in a powdered form, which can be dissolved in milk and drunk. The milk can be warm or cold, and each dose should be around two teaspoons per glass of milk. The average dosage should only be repeated once every three days.

How to identify fake and genuine Caterpillar Fungus?

While it may be easy to tell the real caterpillar fungus from the fakes, usually because the fakes are obvious to spot to anyone who has seen the real caterpillar fungus. With the real caterpillar fungus, the caterpillar should have eight legs, and a dark brown to yellow-brown skin color. The fat short body should also have rings on its back. The stem of the fungus, which sticks out of the bottom, should be hard and crisp, and dark brown to black.

These characteristics are found only in the real caterpillar fungus, and the fakes that have already been discovered have very different body colors and more legs than the ghost moth caterpillar. The real fungus also retains its color when put in water, while the fakes tend to change color slightly and tinge the water. The smell is another giveaway, as the real fungus smalls like mushrooms or mold , while the fakes smell more like dry wood and sulfur.

Where to buy Caterpillar Fungus?

Buying the caterpillar fungus mainly depends on where you are from, and how easily it is available. Most countries around the world do not sell the fungus in shops, and unless there is a TCM store in your area, then you would only be able to buy it by traveling to an area or country where it is sold regularly. It is not advisable to buy it on the internet, as it is more likely to be fake, and poisonous.

The safest and the best way to buy it is from an authentic store that deals in genuine Traditional Chinese medicines, so that you can be assured of good quality and no fakes. Whilst you are in Tibet, you can ask your guide to show you where you can buy it before you leave. Chinese caterpillar fungus is not a controlled substance in most countries, though there are countries where the import of even fungi are strictly controlled, so it is best to know the laws governing the import of such items back to your home country.

Master Kungga Dundruk

About the Author - Master Kungga Dundruk

Kungga Dundruk, often respectfully referred to as “Manager Kunga”, is the most revered and legendary Tibetan guide in our team.

Currently working as a customer service manager in Lhasa, Kunga used to study business overseas and got his Bachelor of Business in Nepal and India before moving back to his homeland. With pure passion for life and unlimited love for Tibet, Kunga started his guide career as early as 1997.

As a legendary Tibetan guide with 22 years of guide experience, Kunga was awarded the Gold Medalist of China’s Best Tour Guide in 2019, marking the pinnacle of his career. Today, Kunga loves sharing his wealth of Tibetan knowledge through travel articles and stands ready to offer prompt support whenever our guests need help in Lhasa.

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