Glen Sycamore is a dating coach who specializes in helping his clientele find love. On his website, you’ll find Tinder tips, or an article on “finding a foreign girlfriend” or “how to get out of the friend zone and avoid it forever” You may also find his first-person account of how a fungus often found protruding from the corpse of a Tibetan caterpillar made him an “animal in the sack, with increased level of sexual stamina.”
In nature, the C. sinensis fungus colonizes the larvae of the ghost moth, which lives high in the Tibetan Himalayas. But C. sinensis affects larvae, which is why it’s also called “caterpillar fungus” or yartsa gunbu, which translates to “winter worm, summer grass.”
People commonly call it a mushroom, but it’s technically a fungus. Whatever you may call it, Sycamore calls it “magical.”
The fungus is part of the wider genus of Ophiocordyceps fungi that infect unsuspecting insects, colonize them, and eventually kill them. The most famous example of this is the Cordyceps unilateralis, the infamous fungus that infects ants and literally controls their bodies in puppeteer style before the ants finally die.
But the caterpillar fungus has a different reputation: It has kept bedroom doors locked since 1400.
“After it kicks in, my focus goes through the roof, and my energy feels illimitable. Physically, I feel more powerful and virile,” Sycamore tells Inverse. “Cordyceps gets me motivated to meet women even more than I already am.”
As early as the 15th century, Nyamnyi Dorje, a Tibetan physician, described both the medicinal and sexual enhancement qualities of C. sinensis. He claimed that it “increases semen,” and is “a faultless treasure of an ocean of good qualities.”
Sycamore, the dating coach, can relate. Though his “libido is sky-high” after taking Cordyceps, he calls it “more than just a male enhancement supplement.” Experts who study it agree that Cordyceps is far more than “Himalayan Viagra,” as CNN memorably described it in a 2012 story.
“It’s not just about a hard-on,” says Daniel Winkler, a Cordyceps expert who runs tours in Tibet and has published several papers on the economics and mycology of Cordyceps. “If you’re Chinese, that’s how you buy youth if you’re old.”
Each year, Tibetan collectors sell pounds of real caterpillar fungus to Chinese buyers who are willing to pay up to $35,000 for a single pound (by Winkler’s estimate) to restore their “life energy.” Because of that reputation, scientists and DIY cultivators tried countless times to recreate these rare mushrooms, which are only found above the tree line in the Himalayas.
Sycamore, though, wasn’t even taking real caterpillar fungus. He was taking a related species that’s sold under the same name in the West — though that doesn’t seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for it. But in China, where the price tag reaches into the thousands for the real caterpillar fungus, scientists have been closing in on trying to recreate the real thing, caterpillar and all, for the more discerning buyer.
Now, they’re closer than ever, which for better or worse, has the potential to reshape libidos, economies, and the ecology of a rare medicinal treasure.
C. sinensis has a strange scientific history that started with Nyamnyi Dorje in the 1400s, but has since blossomed as scientists try to understand exactly what it does, and how it does it. Anecdotally, the reports all sound something similar to Sycamore’s — the Cordyceps mushroom is supposed to be revitalizing mentally, physically, and sexually.
That reputation is what drew German medical student Klaus Sonnenschein (he asked that we not use his real name) to Cordyceps mushrooms, which he buys online. When Inverse spoke with Sonnenschein, he had been taking 500 mg of Cordyceps supplements four times per week for eight months.
“I can exercise better, write better papers, perform better in a sexual setting, mental acuity is sharpened, there’s no addictive properties or psychoactive properties, just an increase in overall functionality,” he tells Inverse.
But ultimately, this research is too far flung to interpret accurately, says Winkler, and it’s for one reason: They’re not all actually testing the same thing.
True caterpillar fungus is found between 3,000 and 5,000 feet high in the mountains in Tibet. The kind that’s available in supplements online, widely available enough to be tested in labs and cheap enough to even consider purchasing, is usually one of two things:
The most common Cordyceps product in North America is called CS-4, which is a cultivar — a plant variety that has been bred exclusively by scientists for cultivation. That cultivar was first isolated by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in 1972. But it’s not actually the same thing that you’d find in the wild. It was once considered an anamorph, an asexual reproductive stage of the fungus’ development. But more recent work has shown that it’s actually Paecilomyces hepiali — a different fungus.
“It’s part of the ecosystem, but what is cultivated and sold as ‘Cordyceps sinensis’ in the West is not the same species. Everyone that grows that knows that, but they have some wordy explanations around it on their web pages,” says Winkler.
CS-4 is what Sycamore first took when he began experimenting with Cordyceps. CS-4 is common in supplements sold online and is relatively cheap to produce compared to caterpillar fungus that goes for thousands of dollars — a CS-4 supplement can be found for $11.99 on Amazon. Though Robert Rogers, a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and the author of over 50 books on medicinal plants, tells Inverse that it’s unlikely to have the same effects as the real caterpillar fungus found in Tibet.
All in all, it’s an “inferior product”, especially compared to the other type of cheap, available Cordyceps on the Western market, called Cordyceps militaris (C. Militaris), says Rogers.
C. militaris reportedly has effects closer to those of caterpillar fungus, and it at least looks like it. It has the same long, spindly appearance, but still doesn’t actually grow in caterpillars. But for people in the US who are seeking something close enough to the mysterious “Viagra of the Himalayas” without bankrupting themselves, Rogers says the C. militaris might be their best bet:
“C. Militaris is cultivated in Asia, and now is being cultivated in North America by a few producers. In fact, I found it in the wild myself in British Columbia,” Rogers tells Inverse. “It’s grown in the lab without an insect, it will produce a superior product. And so that’s the one I recommend for people who are looking to get the benefits of Cordyceps.”
Still, Winkler confirms that it’s not the same thing as true caterpillar fungus, mycologically speaking. It may be close enough for a Western audience that’s interested in the medicinal qualities of mushrooms.
But still it isn’t the same species, and these supplements have benefitted from the lore surrounding the real “Viagra of the Himalayas” all the same — though Winkler adds that we don’t even know exactly what’s going on in true C. sinensis mushrooms from a scientific standpoint either. “We can’t even access what the natural product is because all of the medicinal research is being done on the cultivar,” he says.
Yet, the compiled reports of “increase in functionality” and animalistic sex drive over the years are too tantalizing to ignore. Though the mythology of Cordyceps itself may explain why these reports keep surfacing, says Lawrence Millman, an ethnographer and mycologist and author of Fungipedia.
“If something is akin to a religion, and has been in one’s culture for thousands of years, it might have a positive medicinal effect. It multiplies the placebo effect into something like utility,” Millman tells Inverse. “With respect to Cordyceps, it looks like an erect penis.
“Hence, in China and other places, it is considered the optimal aphrodisiac,” he continues.
That unshakable parallel makes all the difference in how people have come to revere it and use it over the years, because of an ancestral concept in medicinal healing called the Doctrine of Signatures, says Millman. The Doctrine of Signatures, which first appeared in middle ages folk medicine, is a simple concept: When you see an herb, mushroom, or plant, the way it looks is a clue to its inherent medicinal properties. Or perhaps, a way to supercharge the placebo effect.
Once you see it you can’t unsee it; in the wild, C. sinensis really does look like an erect penis.
“All of the sudden everyone can make cash”
Whether it’s the biochemical profile or the Doctrine of Signatures, the demand for caterpillar fungus has skyrocketed. Between 1997 and 2008, the price of caterpillar fungus increased by about 900 percent. As a result, between 85 and 185 tons are harvested every year by collectors in rural Tibet.
When collecting season comes around schools close, and teachers are paid, in part, in free time to allow them to go collect Cordyceps, and then resell it to Chinese buyers. Between 1997 and 2004, Winkler’s research showed that price increases made caterpillar fungus “the single most important source of cash for rural households in contemporary Tibet.” He estimated that caterpillar fungus sales accounted for between 70 and 90 percent of a rural family’s annual income.
“You have a community up there that lived at subsistence, feeding themselves and bartering. Then comes caterpillar fungus and all of the sudden everyone can make cash,” says Winkler. “One or two years of collection and you can buy a motorcycle and you can buy a cell phone.”
Those caterpillars are fundamentally life-changing for many Tibetan families, says Winkler, because right now, they’re the only source for real caterpillar fungus in the world. Lab-grown C. militaris may be closer to the real thing (and CS-4 is a far cry), but neither carry the same cultural weight, which is why even with those alternatives, Chinese buyers still pay out the nose for the real stuff.
“What you get is this dried up larvae with a fungus growing out of their head that does not strike us as beautiful in our culture. But in East Asia this is a symbol of health and strength and youth, and we don’t have that cultural conditioning,” says Winkler.
But both high demand and increasing global temperatures are pushing the caterpillar fungus supply to the brink. In November 2018, a paper published in PNAS found that the supply of caterpillar fungus is declining both due to rapid warming in the Himalayas and due to over-harvesting. Winkler raised concerns about this in 2008 as well, and he hoped that by now, sustainable harvest procedures would have been put into place,
But, lamentably, they weren’t.
Instead, scientists poured their resources into trying to recreate caterpillar fungus en masse, in the lab, says Winkler. Not just CS-4 and C. militaris, but true C. sinensis that they would inject into farmed caterpillars and hope that the fungus would take hold.
For decades, this proved impossible, until 2014 when a Chinese lab finally published a de facto how-to guide in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology.
They had developed a technique for recreating real, Tibetan caterpillar fungus in the lab, and they were ready to tell everyone else how to use it.
“Nobody talks about economic sustainability for these rural areas and that’s kind of heartbreaking actually.”
In March 2019, a team at the Chinese Academy of Medicine published another paper in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology called “a breakthrough in the artificial cultivation of Chinese Cordyceps on a large-scale and its impact on science, the economy, and industry.” They report that several breakthroughs have allowed caterpillar fungus to be grown on a massive scale. They estimate that 2.5 tons were produced in 2014, 5 tons were produced in 2015 and 10 tons were produced in 2016.
This research could easily put one of the most coveted medicinal mushrooms in Tibetan history into mass production, which could fundamentally change the way that they’ve been collected and sold for hundreds of years. That’s for better or worse, depending on who you ask.
For every infected caterpillar larva that’s collected, that’s a ghost moth that will never be born and a mushroom that will never procreate (yes, mushrooms procreate). If we can grow them en masse in a lab, that could be the answer to the sustainability question in the wild — assuming that the market for caterpillar fungus keeps growing as it has for the last decade.
“My own feeling is that it would be better to give every middle aged Chinese man a lifetime supply of Viagra, rather than to render extinct not one, but two species,” says Millman.
But if you ask Winkler, he’s worried that the cost of lab production could be disastrously high in other places.
“That is a total assault that might be a big hit to the rural economy in Tibet,” he says of the 2019 paper. “Native people have a valuable substance, and then outside forces come and take it and become custodians of it. It’s “It’s going to be Han Chinese who make hundreds of millions if not billions by producing caterpillar fungus.
“Nobody talks about economic sustainability for these rural areas and that’s kind of heartbreaking actually,” he continues.
Lab-grown caterpillar fungus could protect the wild caterpillars and their fungal overlords from the growing demand of horny supplement seekers. But it may also leave the economy of an entire country in its wake. Right now, it’s hard to say which is the best path for devotees to take.
Whether grown in a lab on a mummified caterpillar or pulled off the side of a Himalayan mountain, C. sinensis’ mysterious allure will keep people coming back for more.
Sycamore, for one, is a convert for life. And the deeper he dives into the world of Cordyceps, the more he’s willing to spend on it. He used to take CS-4 supplements, but now is willing to spend as much as about $100 for C. militaris.
“In my experience, the US lab-grown mycelium-based cordyceps do work quite well, but I prefer to eat the fruiting bodies when I can,” he says. “Over the past few years, I’ve been living in Asia and found places in Vietnam that sell whole dried Cordyceps militaris mushrooms that are the best I’ve found. They’re expensive.”
But very few non-billionaire consumers have ever had a taste of the true fungus that Nyamnyi Dorje called a “flawless treasure”. Very soon that might completely change, for better or worse.