Posts/August, 2009/

The Tibetan Caterpillar Fungus called Yartsa Gunbu

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

image
Caterpillar fungus.*

Last night, J. and I were watching a special on Tibet. For all the beautiful scenery and wildlife featured, what captivated me most was a fungus.

Tibetan Catepillar Fungus, also called Vartsa Gunbu, is weird.

A certain species of caterpillar lives underground in alpine grass and shrub lands on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. The Cordyceps Sinensis fungus invades the caterpillar, filling its entire body cavity and eventually killing and mummifying it. From the forehead of these mummies, a mushroom grows and emerges from the ground in spring or early summer. After it reaches a few centimeters above the surface, it begins to spore.

This animal/fungus combination is big business in the region, as it’s highly regarded in traditional medicine. People scour the plateau in search of the protruding mushrooms. When found, the caterpillar and fungus are carefully removed from the ground and brushed free of soil. In 2008, according to Wikipedia, a kilogram traded for U$3,000 up to US$18,000 per kilogram depending on the quality level.

Thanks to this weird little parasitic fungus, I have one more reason to visit Tibet.

For more information on Caterpillar Fungus, please consult a Tibetan or its entry on Wikipedia.

*Photo by F. Ihara.
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