Thousands of villagers begin to swarm the alpine pastures of Nepal’s far western region near the Himalayan peaks as the snows start to melt. Despite the harsh environment, they come all set for a long eight weeks of foraging, and pitch up camps. The daylight hours are spent crawling all over shrub lands, as they search for an unusual kind of mushroom called yarsagumba, which they dig out with great care. The yarsagumba is then gently brushed with a toothbrush, and kept in a basket.
Their catch promises high returns, and the more experienced pickers may earn about US$2,500 dollars if the collection is good. Yarsagumba is an expensive herb with a global demand; in the international market, one kilogram can fetch about US$10,000 dollars. The pickers get about a dollar for one piece, which goes up to about 30 dollars in the cities. It is not only the present day market; even in older times, yarsagumba commanded premium prices. According to some researchers, even rotten specimens fetched pretty good prices way back in 1892. According to another researcher, in 1990, the price was US$700/kg in China.
Yarsagumba (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is best described by its Chinese term dong chong xia cao (winter insect, summer grass). It is also known as Chinese caterpillar fungus. Before metamorphosing into a pupa, the caterpillar of a moth (Thitarodes hepialus) lives below the ground in shrub lands at altitudes of 2,000m to 5,000m on the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas for around five years. It is attacked by a fungus (Ophiocordycipitaceae) while still in its larva state, and the insect’s body is filled with mycelium, and ultimately dies. Mushrooms begin to grow out of its forehead, and these become visible on the ground surface when the weather gets warmer, and the snows begin to melt.
The health benefits of this peculiar herb were known since ancient times, when it was consumed as a potent tonic by royalty. It is believed to relieve stress by rejuvenating a system under stress. It is a cure-all in Chinese traditional medicine, potent against many ailments, besides enhancing energy and vitality, strengthening the lungs and kidneys, increasing longevity, stopping hemorrhaging, etc. But, of course, it is best known as a powerful aphrodisiac. Another additional benefit of yarsagumba is that it is a natural product, and so, side effects are almost non-existent.
Yarsagumba gained popularity in the West in the 1990s, when everybody started talking about ‘Ma Junren’s Army’ and their record breaking feats in athletics. Chinese coach Ma Junren’s women runners did fantastically well in middle and long distance running, breaking some long-standing world records. He confided that, to relive the stress of rigorous training at high altitudes, his athletes took yarsagumba thrice daily. And, thereafter, yarsagumba began to be known as the ‘miracle mushroom’.