Cordyceps: the caterpillar mushroom

The cordyceps mushroom (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) does not actually result from any bizarre cross-breeding between a caterpillar and a mushroom but it does nevertheless arise from a strange and ghoulish union between the fungus and a larval moth. The cordyceps mushroom colonises and effectively mummifies the caterpillar growing out of the head of unfortunate host. The resulting fungus has been prized in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine for centuries and now is gaining fame worldwide for its healing effects. 


The cordyceps mushroom, also called Chinese caterpillar fungus, goes by Chinese and Tibetan names meaning “winter worm” and “summer grass”. Cordyceps grows mainly in high, cold regions at the altitude of 3500–5000 metres above sea level in northwestern parts of China and on the Tibetan plateau. It is found most abundantly in Sichuan Province, but the cordyceps grown on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau offers better quality.

In fact, cordyceps is a complex of a parasitic fungus and its host insect, the larva of a ghost moth species named Hepialus armoricanus Oberthur. The adult moth mates in summertime and lays eggs on the surface layer of soil. When the eggs are hatched the larva crawls into the loose, moist soil. The larva must spend five years in soil before metamorphosing into a caterpillar.

In the summer, when the larvae are most active, they crawl out of soil and feed themselves on barks and grass roots to store energy, and then crawl back into soil to spend the winter underground. Just when the larvae are most active at the top layer of soil, they are also most susceptible to infection by cordyceps. The probable infection process is that cordyceps spores spread in the air and are flushed into the soil by rain or dew. The spores then attach to the pores of the larvae and, as any good body-snatcher would do, invade their bodies.

When winter comes and they have eaten their summer fill, the cordyceps-infected larvae penetrate the soil to pass the winter there. During winter the spores inside the body of the larva start to germinate and absorb nutrients from its internal organs to grow. The spores undergo rapid reproduction, forming thread-like filaments called mycelia while decomposing the body of the larva as nutrients. The mycelia gradually grow, spread and finally infiltrate the entire body of the larva, causing its death. The caterpillar has effectively been mummified and now simply plays host to the growing mushroom.

In the following summer when the weather warms up, the mushroom grows out of the head of dead larva into a column-like fruiting body with a sac at the end containing fungal spores. The mature spores are released into the air from the sac and spread by wind to look for other larval hosts to complete the reproductive cycle for cordyceps.

Of course, having completed its ghoulish mummification job, the mushroom may never get to spore before it is picked by a human eager for its culinary and medicinal delights.

Cordyceps as medicine

Cordyceps is highly prized by practitioners of traditional Tibetan medicine and Chinese medicine. It is regarded as having an excellent balance of yin and yang deriving from its dual animal and vegetable origins.

In traditional usage it has a reputation as a tonic similar to ginseng. It is prized as a male sexual elixir, often appears in tonic formulas and is used as an aphrodisiac. Traditionally, cordyceps has been regarded as being particularly effective in restoring vitality after a long illness, surgery, childbirth and other conditions of energy depletion and physical exhaustion. In Chinese medicine terms, cordyceps is considered sweet and warm, entering the lung and kidney channels.

Modern research has also shown a range of actions for this mushroom that support its tonic reputation. Studies have shown cordyceps can protect the bone marrow and digestive systems of mice from whole-body irradiation. Other research has found that it has a hypoglycaemic effect and may be beneficial for people with insulin resistance. There is evidence to support the energising effect of cordyceps as it has been shown to increase endurance in rats through heightened production of the energy-storing molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

A study in the March 2013 issue of Scientific Report has also shown that a mycelial form of cordyceps suppresses interleukins, meaning it has an anti-inflammatory effect.

Using cordyceps

Traditional Chinese herbals state that cooking cordyceps with chicken or duck, particularly a drake, is by far the best way to extract and assimilate its full medicinal benefits. Many recipes are available to guide you in using the cordyceps mushroom in cooking. Essentially, though, it’s favoured in stews and soups and is often accompanied, as tradition would recommend, by chicken and sometimes even ginseng.

If you would prefer to have it as a supplement, extracts are available. While detailed clinical evidence is not available, the suggestions are that somewhere between three and nine grams of extract daily will be an effective dose. It will depend on the product you use, however, so it’s wise to consult your healthcare practitioner.

  • References available on request.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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