Two freshly dug (one fully cleaned) caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps sinensis, 8-12 cm long), known in Tibetan as "Yartsa Gunbu" (dbYar rTswa dGun 'Bu) and in Chinese as "Chongcao" [dong chong xia cao] are laying on Androsace, a high-altitude cushion plant in the Primulaceae family.
The stroma (sporocarp = fruiting body) of the fungus grows above ground in spring or early summer to facilitate spore dispersal. The stroma grows out of the head of the former caterpillar (technically a larva), which otherwise would overwinter buried deep in grass or other perennial roots. The larva, if not taken over by Cordyceps, would grow into a small white ghost moth [Thitarodes spp.,formerly classified as Hepialus spp.].
According to the latest review of the genus Cordyceps, Cordyceps sinensis is now known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Sung et al. 2007)
Regarding the name "Yartsa Gunbu", in Bhutan it is anglicized as Yartsa Goenbub from Dzongkha und in Nepal as Yarchagumba or Yarshagumba from Dolpo via Nepali. In Hindi it is known as Keera Jhar.
© Daniel Winkler Photo June 26, 1997, 4400m, Bachen / Baqen County, Nagchu / Naqu Prefecture, Tibet AR
The long-term impact of intensive collection on caterpillar fungus and its reproduction is not clear yet, but the situation is worrisome. From a mycological point of view, it can be speculated that, if the fungus is collected after it had time to release enough of its spores, there might be not much negative impact. Handling the fungus might even result in wider "spore" dispersal. In many locations caterpillar fungus has been collected for centuries and is still reproducing. However, specimens which are collected before spore dispersal are regarded as more desirable than late stage specimens. In general, the intensity of collection is unprecedented and we do lack scientific studies on the impact of collection or trials to study the impact of different harvesting techniques. In addition, climate change might be impacting the life cycle of insect and fungus. In the photo above, the specimen [center] with the narrow sporocarp was dug up before it developed its spore producing cells, known as asci. The specimen to the right has well developed perithecia (see photo below). Cordyceps gathered early in the season often has not had the time to produce spores. © Daniel Winkler Photo: Karma La, NW Yunnan, June 2008
A nomad family searching for Yartsa Gunbu. Kids are welcome helpers finding the tiny fungus. Often their eyesight is better and they are closer to the ground. Usually a family pools their harvest, never did I hear the kids keep their find. The income is too important for the family.
© Daniel Winkler, Kongpo Barla, 4400m, Meldrogongkar County, Tibet AR, June 2006
A Yartsa Gunbu / Cordyceps collectors camp with Pema Karpo / Baima Xueshan in the background.
The next day when we returned up on the pass everything was covered under 10cm of snow. There is no possibility of collection in snow. One just has to wait a few days or decide to go down and declare the season over.
A bu digger using a simple wooden instrument. Digging Cordyceps one has to be very careful not to break the fruiting body from the caterpillar. While larva and mushroom are quite tough, the point where the mushroom grows out of the head is fragile. © Daniel Winkler, Serkyim La, June 2006
Cordyceps sinensis fruiting body with well developed perithecia. The top seems to have been gnawed off by some small creature.
© Daniel Winkler, Kongpo Barla, June 2006
Fungal candy anyone? Tibetan lady offeringCordyceps for sale in a candy bag on the way to Kongpo Barla Pass.
June 2006 © Daniel Winkler
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Lots of smiles and excitement once that 'needle in the haystack' is found. Kongpo Barla, 4400m, Meldrogongkar County, TAR, June 2006 © D. Winkler