During the months of May and June, the Tibetan plateaus are dotted with locals from the Himalayan community. Sprawled on their hands and knees, they carefully scour the alpine grass that covers these pinnacles.
To an outsider, this may be a unique sight. But in fact, this practice has been occurring for centuries. Flocks of local people dispersed across the landscape – searching for a strange worm-like creature that is worth more than gold itself.
This Tibetan treasure is known as Cordyceps sinensis – a strange fungus that infects the larvae of ghost moths, soon to become its host. Spores will embed themselves within the insect’s body and slowly produce mycelium that will deteriorate the worm’s internal organs, eventually killing the host. In summer, the fungus produces a brown tinged, worm shaped, fruiting body which explodes from the insects head and becomes the ultimate prize of this massive treasure hunt. In Chinese, its name translated to english is, “winter worm, summer grass”.
The health benefits of this mushroom have been common knowledge amongst the local Himalayan communities for generations. In recent decades, Cordyceps sinensis has become increasingly popular as people across the world are tapping into the knowledge of these ancient cultures and becoming aware of how medicinally powerful these mushrooms are. This increase in demand coupled with the mushroom’s diminishing numbers have led to skyrocketing prices, fetching more than $20,000 USD per kilogram!
To meet this demand, scientists have been scrambling to reproduce and cultivate this fungi in a laboratory-setting. Unfortunately, the cultivation of Cordyceps sinensis has had varying results. Many attempts have been unsuccessful but there have been some positive results. The cultivation of a closely related species – Cordyceps militaris – has been more promising.
Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris are the two most commonly researched species of the Cordyceps genus, due to their powerful healing properties.
We will take a closer look at the two, and hopefully by the end of this article you will be able to source and identify the highest quality products for your own health benefit.
Foraging For Cordyceps Sinensis
Unless you are fortunate enough to afford a guided expedition to the Himalayas, it will be nearly impossible to source pure or wild Cordyceps sinensis. Due to its incredibly high price-tag it is also unlikely that any products or supplements that claim to be Cordyceps sinensis actually contain the pure product – but we will touch on this shortly.
Cordyceps sinensis is naturally distributed across the high-altitude regions of Tibet and China. It can also be found, although in reduced numbers, across plateaus in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Globally, there has been an increasing demand for this mushroom and its harvesting has become the livelihood of local communities with local households earning almost two-thirds of their income from the harvests.
Consequently, this has led to overexploitation, which, along with climate change causing the warming of these alpine regions, has been disastrous for Cordyceps sinensis. Sadly, in 1999 it even claimed a spot on China’s endangered species list.
Lab Grown Cordycep Sinensis
Chinese scientists saw the value in being able to mass produce this parasitic fungus and attempted to reproduce Cordyceps sinensis in the lab.
They managed to experience some success by producing mass amounts of mycelium but unfortunately it continues to prove very difficult to cultivate the fruiting bodies. With precise control of environmental conditions, scientists were able to produce fruiting bodies by mimicking nature and using larval hosts in which to introduce the spores. However, although successful, the cultivation costs were far too high.
Growing Cordycep Sinensis on Grain Substrates and Liquid Fermentations
They were however, able to cultivate affordable mycelium in two different ways. Through liquid fermentation and by growing the mycelium on grain substrates.
Liquid fermentation has led to the production of what is known as Cordyceps CS-4. The mycelium is able to be extracted from the liquid medium, dehydrated and then turned into a powder. CS-4 has actually shown to provide a number of benefits and this form of Cordyceps is what is found in many medicines and health supplements on the shelves today. However, not all CS-4 has been created equally with some being cultured in poor conditions leading to contaminated products.
The alternative growing culture is grain and unfortunately, the mycelium that is produced cannot be separated from it. This results in a final product that is very high in starch (up to 65 percent) in comparison to the wild variety which contains approximately five percent.
Sourcing High-Quality Cordyceps
CS-4 is often sold in products claiming to contain the authentic Cordyceps sinensis when in reality, it is an inferior product. Recent studies have actually shown that CS-4 is not an anamorph of Cordyceps sinensis at all, but is in fact Paecilomyces hepiali – a different fungus. The small amount of studies based on CS-4 and its purported health benefits also seem to be conflicting in their results (1,2). In addition, the quality of CS-4 can be extremely variable. If a product seems too good to be true, it probably is. Authentic CS-4 is extremely difficult to find in the United States with most of the more reliable products coming from China.
Supplements that claim to be Cordyceps may also be the cheaply produced version grown on myceliated grain. The resulting product is high in starch (measured by alpha-glucan content) and is relatively low in beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are the bioactive, measurable component of mushrooms that contain most of the health benefits.
To identify poor quality products – take a look at the ingredients label. Look out for wording such as “myceliated brown rice” or similar. Any Cordyceps sinensis products that are ‘Made in the USA’ are almost certain to be myceliated grain.
You should avoid these products as essentially they are a lacklustre version of Cordyceps that fails to provide the same benefits.
Fortunately, there is another alternative.
Scientists have had a lot of success with the other medicinally potent Cordyceps species – Cordyceps militaris.
Foraging for Cordyceps militaris
Cordyceps militaris, can be found in many regions of the world including North and South America, Asia, and Europe. However, they are far from being abundant and numbers are continually falling, which makes foraging for this fungus pretty difficult.
However, it is not impossible! So if you want to undertake a foraging expedition, it may be worth a try. In the continental US, Cordyceps militaris is mostly found during the months of June, July, and August, often along river banks in pine forests or mountainous regions. Central Pennsylvania seems to be a more promising area for finding these medicinal mushrooms.
Cordyceps militaris are club-shaped fungi that are bright orange or yellow in color. Like all Cordyceps species, this fungus grows by infecting and killing a host organism.
If you are lucky enough to stumble across one, mycosymbiotics.net lists clear instructions for how to harvest it carefully. They recommend that you carefully dig the whole fungus (including the host-insect) up with your fingers. If the ground is too hard, you can use a knife or small shovel. The host-insect is great for determining the quality of your discovered mushroom. If the outer shell of the insect (the exoskeleton) is still intact, then the mycelium will be very clean, which is great for cloning. If the host is soft or broken there is a high chance that the host is full of mites that have been eating the mycelium.
Once recovered, it is best to store the specimen in a breathable plastic container in the fridge. If you wish to eat this delicacy, it is best consumed within four to five days of harvesting.
Cultivation of Cordyceps
Again, the increasing demand for this impressive mushroom far exceeds the natural supply. Fortunately, scientists have managed to cultivate this fungus with great success. Even more exciting is that numerous studies have shown cultivated Cordyceps militaris to contain high concentrations of amino acids, saccharides and nucleosides including the remarkable cordycepin which has been linked to numerous healing benefits. In fact, cultivated Cordyceps militaris has shown to contain higher levels of cordycepin than their natural counterpart.
One study in 2009 showed cultivated Cordyceps militaris to outshine the extremely sought after natural Cordyceps sinensis, with the militaris fruiting bodies having higher levels of cordycepin and adenosine. Contents in the cultured mycelium of Cordyceps militaris were also found to provide similar benefits to those found in the prized Cordyceps sinensis fruiting bodies.
These are very promising findings – especially for the medical and health industries.
The secret to cultivated Cordyceps militaris is that scientists have successfully been able to reproduce the fruiting bodies of this fungus rather than just the mycelium as in Cordyceps sinensis cultivation.
Cordyceps militaris is affordably cultivated on liquid substrates in climate-controlled, indoor facilities across the world, including in the United States.
Cordyceps militaris can be grown on surface liquid culture or in submerged culture.
Surface liquid culture involves the fungus being incubated in a 500ml culture bottle at twenty five degrees celsius. Submerged culture is when militaris is grown in a liquid medium which is vigorously aerated and agitated in fermentors.
You can learn more about growing Cordyceps in out step-by-step guide for growing Cordyceps at home.
It is important to source high quality Cordyceps militaris products as there can be quite a lot of variation depending on cultivation techniques. There is some genetic variation amongst different strains from different parts of the world which can lead to diversity amongst product quality.
Culture conditions and the medium on which this fungus is cultivated, also has a significant impact on the resulting product quality.
Cordyceps militaris supplements are affordable and have powerful healing properties. When looking for a quality product, look for a product that is derived solely from the fruiting bodies and try to avoid any product high in starch or grown on myceliated grain. Look for products with a high beta-glucan content and a cordycepin content of 12 percent or more.
Most of the cultivated militaris that is produced in the United States is most likely grown on myceliated grain and is therefore not as high quality as many products coming out of Asia.
Real Mushrooms is a company that sells high quality Cordyceps militaris powder and can be purchased here.
Another reliable US company is Mushroom Revival. Their products can be found here.
Due to the sharp increase in demand for Cordyceps products there has been an expansion of companies mass producing this caterpillar fungus. It can be very confusing as to which products are high quality due to the different cultivation techniques and common mislabelling by companies.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better overview of the two Cordyceps species and can guide you to making a more informed decision on what products are best.
To summarize, unless you can get pure Cordyceps sinensis, it is better to opt for a clean Cordyceps militaris product instead. Look for products made purely from the fruiting bodies. This way, you are getting a great substitute for the real thing with increased health boosting benefits.