The Magic Fungus of The Himalayas


Cordyceps, locally known as Yartsa Goenbub, which literally translates to ‘summer grass, winter worm’, is a rare species of parasitic fungus (mushroom) native to the high regions of the Himalayas in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and China. Known as a magic fungus for its numerous health benefits, Cordyceps is a high-value fungus, much in demand across the world.

What is a Cordyceps?

Cordyceps is a genus of parasitic fungi that grows on the living larvae of insects. The fungus is the result of spores from Cordyceps sinensis entering the body of a live caterpillar while it is in the larval form of a large moth native to the region. Upon infection from the spores, strands of filaments called ‘hyphae’ begin to sprout from the spores that then lead to the death of the caterpillar. The hyphae grow longer and more numerous and develop into a relatively large stalk-like fungal fruiting body that emerges from the insect’s carcass after having sapped the caterpillar’s body of all nutrients. For that reason, it is also often known as zombie caterpillar.

The lunana mountain range where the king size cordyceps grows

In Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali, Cordyceps is locally called as ‘Yartsa Goenbub’ which literally means ‘winter insect, summer grass’. This is because Cordyceps is insect-like during winter and grass-like during summer. Usually two types of Cordyceps – ‘Cordyceps sinensis’ and ‘Cordyceps militaris’ – is used to improve health in oriental medicine. Cordyceps sinensis is now called Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Both types of Cordyceps are known to have many health benefits. Cordyceps grows mainly in the high meadows above 3,000m to 4,000m in the Himalayan regions such as Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Bhutan, and also in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China.

How was Cordyceps discovered?

Cordyceps was first discovered when yak herders observed their yaks becoming increasingly energized after eating the fungus in the high grasslands surrounding the Himalayas. A thousand years after this first observation, physicians of Chinese Emperors learnt of this phenomenon and began to cultivate and use Cordyceps mushroom as an aphrodisiac.

It wasn’t until the 1400s that Cordyceps was first documented. Most herbal medicine was passed down verbally, rather than written.

Originally only reserved for the ancient Chinese Emperors and royal family, the unique properties of Cordyceps mushroom and its rarity in nature reveal the herb as a superior adaptogen of the highest level.

Fast forward to today, Cordyceps mushroom is known throughout the biohacking community and is a popular herbal supplement used by many high performing athletes, entrepreneurs, herbalists, naturopaths and scientists. Its unique compounds have been studied and applied to prevent and treat numerous diseases ranging from bronchitis, asthma, high cholesterol, infertility, chronic fatigue and autoimmune conditions, among others. Cordyceps is also known as the ‘Himalayan Viagra’ believed to treat male impotence.

Cordyceps harvesting in Bhutan

Cordyceps collected by large group of villagers at Mt.Gangkhar Puensum, the highest mountain in Bhutan

The collection of Yartsa Goenbub was prohibited under the Kingdom’s forestry act until 2004 when harvesting of Cordyceps was legalized through a Royal decree issued by His Majesty the Fourth King.

Only highlanders living in Gasa, Bumthang, Thimphu, Paro and Trongsa districts can harvest the Cordyceps. According to government guidelines, only nomads and semi-nomads are granted permission to harvest Cordyceps.

Cordyceps appears annually between the months of April and August and harvesting of Cordyceps is allowed only during those months. Every season, highlanders have to obtain special permits to harvest the fungus. The Cordyceps collected are then sold through a special government auction in each district where various government agencies regulate the sale of the prized fungus. Cordyceps collection is allowed only once a year.

The legalization of Cordyceps collection has significantly improved the socio-economic conditions of highlanders, who predominantly depended on traditional yak rearing for sustenance. Due to high demand and increasing price of the Cordyceps in the global market, most highlanders of Bhutan have prospered and become wealthy.

The income earned through the lucrative Cordyceps business has enabled highlanders to build proper houses, improve hygiene with indoor toilets, and better water supply. They are also able to send their children for higher education away from their rural homes. It is also not uncommon to hear stories of highlanders using choppers for transportation. That’s the kind of positive change this magical fungus has had on remote highland communities of Bhutan.

Cheki Dorji

Also known as PILA, he is the CEO of Yelha Bhutan Tours and founder of Cordyceps from Bhutan company which is one of the top Cordyceps exporters from Bhutan.