The Yartsa gunbu or caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc. 1878) is an Ascomycete mushroom belonging to the Cordycipitaceae family.
From the systematic point of view it belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, Kingdom Fungi, Ascomycota Division, Pezizomycotina Subdivision, Ascomycetes Class, Hypocreomycetidae Subclass, Hypocreales Order, Cordycipitaceae Family and therefore to the Cordyceps Genus and to the C. sinensis Species.
The terms are synonymous:
– Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Berk.) G.H.Sung, J.M.Sung, Hywel-Jones & Spatafora (2007);
– Sphaeria sinensis Berk. (1843).
The term Cordyceps comes from the Greek κορδύλη cordýle clava and from the Latin suffix -ceps (derived from cáput) capo, testa: with a club-shaped hat.
The specific epithet sinensis comes from Sínae China: Chinese.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Cordyceps sinensis is a mushroom with annual growth, with a harvest period between the months of April and August. Fructification occurs outside the body of moth larvae and thrives only at altitudes above 3,800 meters above sea level, in the cold, in alpine meadows in the mountainous Himalayan plateau, in Tibet, and in the modern Chinese provinces of: Sichuan, Gansu, Hubei, Zhejiang, Shanxi, Guizhon, Qinghai and Yunnan.
The caterpillar shows the first signs of fungal infection in spring, when the mycelium begins to decompose the body of the larva until it reaches complete fruiting. After the caterpillar’s food source has been exhausted and winter gives way to the spring and summer months, harvesting of this mushroom begins, also because the melting of low-altitude snow facilitates the process.
Cordyceps sinensis is recognized for having the ascocarp or fruiting body that grows from the head of the body of insect larvae (which are usually the larvae of the Tibetan moth, Hepialus armoricanus (synonym of Thitarodes armoricanus Oberthür, 1909), although from time to time it can be encountered on other host insects) and ends outside it, including the stem and the stroma.
The fruiting body is dark brown tending to black; the larval body that contains the mycelium of the fungus takes on a yellowish color tending to brown. The immature larvae, which constitute the incubator on which the Cordyceps grows, usually live about 6 centimeters below the ground, are 10-15 mm long and have a weight of about 0.05 g. The infesting spores of the fungus, which in the opinion of some mycologists may be the infectious agent for the insect, are about 5-10 µm long.
By the time the fungus approaches maturity, it will have already consumed more than 99% of the infested organism, completely mummifying its body. As the stroma matures, they swell and develop the perihelion. The average weight of an organism, including the stroma, is only about 0.06 g, conditions permitting; the spores are then discharged and carried by the wind a few centimeters from their original fall.
It should be remembered that Cordyceps, like many other Ascomycetes, can bear fruit in an imperfect (anamorph) stage that does not resemble the perfect (teleomorphic) stage.
Anamorphs, which have often been described under different names, are not easy to connect with teleomorphs because they only very rarely appear simultaneously.
Cordyceps sinensis is a very rare mushroom that grows high in the highlands of Tibet and is very difficult to grow. Its enormous value has attracted, in the growing areas, numerous collectors also from other areas of China, creating discontent and even violent situations. This “Cordyceps race” has also led to an anticipation of harvest times with a consequent increase in the risk of extinction of this species. This anticipation does not allow this organism to produce and disseminate the spores, essential for its reproduction and survival. Fortunately, organizations with the aim of protecting this species from extinction, in collaboration with government institutions, are regulating its collection. In Europe, the import of Cordyceps is prohibited as it is an endangered species. Fortunately, a way has been found to cultivate Cordyceps in the laboratory in controlled cultures, thus reducing costs and allowing the use of this remedy all over the world.
Customs and Traditions –
Cordyceps sinensis is a rare and exotic medicinal mushroom, known in China for many centuries. It is one of those mushrooms that has numerous, far-reaching references to possible medicinal effects. Its use in the West is instead better known only in recent decades.
It is known by various names including the Japanese one of Totsu kasu or Tochukasu and the Chinese ones of: Hia Tsao Tong Tchong, Dong Chong Xia Cao (Chong Cao), (literally: “winter mushroom, summer grass” Ancient Chinese; Modern Chinese).
In historical and general usage the term “Cordyceps” usually refers specifically to the Cordyceps sinensis species, but there are also many other closely related species that go under the general term of Cordyceps. There are therefore many other species of the genus Cordyceps in which modern science has found valuable medicinal properties.
Returning to Cordyceps sinensis, this mushroom has been known and used for many centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
In nature, as mentioned, it is found only at high altitudes in the Himalayan plateau, and is therefore difficult to find and collect. Due to the difficulties of harvesting this exotic medicine, Cordyceps has always been one of the most expensive natural remedies known. This high price relegated it almost exclusively to members of the imperial court and other affiliates of the Chinese nobility, and it has historically been out of reach for the average Chinese subject.
However, despite its cost and rarity, the unprecedented large amount of medicinal uses have made it a highly valued mushroom in the Chinese medical tradition.
Known for more than 2000 years, both in China and throughout the East, the fame of this incredible mushroom reached the Western scientific public only in 1726, when it was introduced at a scientific meeting in Paris. A Jesuit priest, who recounted his experiences with the Cordyceps mushroom during a stay at the court of the Chinese emperor, brought the first specimens of the mushroom to France (Pereira, 1843).
While it always remains a rarity in nature, modern technological advances in the cultivation of the latter have made it more available and have reduced prices, allowing the monitoring of medicinal uses to continue and to increase treatments with it. Furthermore, this allows us to demonstrate to the public how clinical studies are proceeding and scientifically prove what Traditional Chinese Medicine, and its practitioners, have recognized for centuries: the legendary effectiveness of the Cordyceps mushroom.
This mushroom is attributed the ability to improve the immune system. It is also believed that it can act against cancer cells, promoting a reduction in the size of the neoplastic masses (specifically in forms of cancer that can affect the lungs or skin). Finally, this fungus is considered an adaptogen, that is, a remedy capable of increasing the energy and strength available and reducing fatigue.
Over the years, its use has been recommended against very different problems: from respiratory problems (such as cough and chronic bronchitis) to those affecting the kidneys or liver, high cholesterol, dizziness, weakness, urge to urinate at night, male sexual dysfunction, anemia, irregular heartbeat, tinnitus, unwanted weight loss and opium addiction. It is also proposed to strengthen the immune system, promote longevity, improve liver function in the case of hepatitis B, improve athletic performance and fight aging.
However, we would like to remind you that the scientific evidence gathered to date in support of these uses is insufficient, and EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) has therefore not authorized the claims according to which it would provide antioxidant power to support the immune system, it would increase performance and endurance during heavy physical activity, neutralize free radicals, help strengthen the body, support the immune system and invigorate the entire body.
Furthermore, it should be noted that due to its alleged effect on the immune system, the intake of Cordyceps sinensis could interact with that of cyclophosphamide, immunosuppressants and prednisolone.
In general, taking – orally for short periods – is considered safe. However, it cannot be ruled out that it may not be recommended in case of pregnancy, breastfeeding, planned surgery, autoimmune diseases and bleeding disorders. If in doubt, ask your doctor for advice.
Cordyceps contains a great variability of biologically active substances, considered important from a nutritional point of view; contains all essential amino acids, vitamins E, K, B1, B2 and B12, mono-, di- and oligosaccharides, polysaccharides, proteins, sterols, nucleosides and analogues of nucleosides, macro and microelements (K, Na, Ca, Mg, Fe, Cu, Mn, Zn, Pi, Se, Al, Si, Ni, Sr, Ti, Cr, Ga, V and Zr). Among the most potent bioactive components are the nucleoside analogues, not found in other natural remedies: Cordycepin (3′-deoxyadenosine), cordycepic acid, 2′-deoxyadenosine and other analogues of deoxygenated nucleotides (uridine, deoxyuridine, adenosine, dideoxyadenosine). Then there are polysaccharides, cycle furans, beta-glucans, beta-mannans. From the anamorphic form (Tolypocladium inflatum) of a species of Cordyceps (Cordyceps subsessilis) was isolated cyclosporine, an immunosuppressive substance that changed the course of medicine allowing post-transplant drug therapy aimed at avoiding rejection. A series of sterols have also been identified in Cordyceps: ergosterol, beta-3 ergosterol, ergosterol peroxide, 3-sitosterol, daucosterol, campeasterol and others.
Among the bioactive substances it contains in addition to trace elements and vitamins, many polysaccharides. In particular:
– Cordycepic acid (D-Mannitol);
– Palmitic acid;
– Cordicepine, a derivative of the nucleoside adenosine considered the most important active component from the therapeutic point of view;
A very curious fact about this mushroom is what happened in September 1993 when a scandal concerning the Beijing National Games broke out in China. Three world records in women’s athletics were broken in just one week. Nothing like this had ever happened. In the field of athletics someone protested. For so many world records to collapse in one place and in such a short time, the athletes had to have taken anabolic substances. The urine test would certainly have confirmed this fact. But the tests were negative, disproving this hypothesis. Pressed by journalists who pressed to know why his athletes were capable of such performances, coach Ma Junren mentioned their strict training program, passion for sport and a secret elixir made from Cordyceps sinensis.
Preparation Method –
Cordyceps sinensis is already on the market in various ready-to-use formulations. Generally, 2 to 6 teaspoons per day of Cordyceps sinensis powder are used, mixed with water, or in a yogurt, in a single solution, or by breaking up the intake during various times of the day. For better assimilation it is advisable to add lemon juice, which contains vitamin C. Since cordyceps is a highly digestible product, it can be taken on an empty stomach, or after meals.
By combining Vitamin C, the active ingredients present in mushrooms, are absorbed more completely in the intestine. This increases the effectiveness of the product.
It is possible to mix two or more mushrooms, or combine them with other herbs with a similar effect.
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Warning: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.