When you’re on the hunt for Cordyceps Sinensis, you’re looking for a mushroom that grows out of a caterpillar’s head. It’s said to take the form of a “plant” in the summer and an “animal” in the winter. The Bhutanese and Tibetans call it Yartsa Guen Bub, which means “summer grass winter worm.” Cordyceps has been used as a tonic for promoting longevity, vitality, and endurance since ancient times. It helps to strengthen the body and mind. This fungus’s benefits have made it known as nature’s blessing.
The Cordyceps Sinensis fungus is a highly sought-after medicinal plant. With the plant comes an air of high mountain mysticism and the lure of gold. The highlanders describe it as a precious gift from God. A long-awaited reward for the sweat and tears they’ve shed in the gorgeous but dangerous high alpine environment. Therefore, the hunt for Cordyceps Sinensis in Bhutan, the world’s most expensive fungi, is nothing less than the quest for the Holy Grail.
Harvesting Cordyceps Sinensis in Bhutan
The Royal Government of Bhutan allowed cordyceps harvesting in 2004 by a Royal Decree. It was deemed banned before that.
Harvesting Cordyceps in Bhutan is a time-honored tradition that has helped improve the lives of many highlanders since it has been legalised. It has now become the primary source of revenue for mountain communities and has opened up new opportunities in business and education. If they lose their lucrative trade, many villagers would have to turn to full-time yak farming, which is extremely labor-intensive and pays very little.
The Harvesting Process
Bhutan has one of the most stringent regulations regarding the harvest of Cordyceps Sinensis. Local officials and forestry service workers oversee the entire process. They are on the lookout for poachers and outsiders who are involved in the illegal trade of the country’s most prized crop. Cordyceps are allowed to be collected only if it is done sustainably. The goal should be long-term sustainability
Where is it found?
The high-altitude forests of Bhutan are home to several rare and endangered species, one of which is cordyceps. They are found in the remote northern parts of the country, at an altitude of 3,400–4,100 m above sea level. Generally found in grass and shrub land, the distribution range is recorded from 4200 to 5200 meters. Cordyceps’ habitat is in the high alpine sections of national parks and near the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China’s border. Therefore, monitoring unauthorized cordyceps harvesting has long been a difficult task due to the inadequate number of forest personnel patrolling the areas.
Who is eligible to harvest?
Only skilled local villagers from the Cordyceps growing areas are permitted to collect this special fungus. The collector must respect the delicate alpine ecology and know where to hunt.
According to guidelines from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, only nomads and semi-nomads are allowed to harvest cordyceps. Highlanders living in Gasa, Bumthang, Thimphu, Paro, and Trongsa will be permitted if they have their household number (thram) registered with the Gewog Administrator. A maximum of three people per household can register for the collection of the crop. The harvest of Cordyceps Sinensis is forbidden for civil servants and children under the age of twelve. To avoid conflicts of interest, the nomads are also given a particular harvesting boundary.
When is it harvested?
Every year, under the rugged and unpleasant circumstances of the high altitudes, collectors spend four weeks collecting the treasured mushroom. The harvest of Cordyceps Sinensis starts from the second week of May to the third week of June. They are only allowed to do harvesting once a year. The collection is monitored by the local leaders and forestry officials.
The growth of cordyceps each year is unpredictable. Therefore, the collectors have appealed to the government to extend the collection period from a month to a year. The length of time it takes for the snow to melt is another factor. It fluctuates from year to year. According to the collectors, this is important because cordyceps growth is exclusively dependent on snowfall. And the snow must melt for the fungus to be spotted.
How is it Harvested?
The search for this unusual caterpillar fungus is difficult and needs specialisation. Collectors have to walk incredible lengths for the harvest of Cordyceps Sinensis. The trip alone takes many days deep into the Himalayas from the nearest road. Climbing around a steep slope at an elevation of 14,000 to 17,000 feet requires a rare combination of quickness and hardiness.
A long, laborious, and painstaking search by highly trained eyes is required to locate the fruiting body of a caterpillar fungus. It only protrudes a centimeter or less from the soil. By digging through the snow, the fungus is retrieved from the ghost moth caterpillar. Harvesters still collect with their bare hands or an axe. The medicinal mushroom is delicately removed without causing structural damage. They are then divided into prime samples and those that should be discarded or placed in a lower-quality batch.
Distribution and Trading
Cordyceps Sinensis or Yartsa Guenbub is a protected species in Bhutan. It can only be legally sold by collectors at government-administered auctions. This adds a competitive element to the purchase process and provides some protection to the harvesters. The collectors are mostly poorly educated and have little concept of the ultimate retail value of their crop. The auctions are held in various localities throughout northern Bhutan making them accessible to buyers and harvesters alike. Yartsa Guenbub can only be sold at auction by licensed collectors.
The auctions are colorful spectacles, with the sellers hoping for a large financial gain and the purchasers seeking to keep the pricing under control. Buyers must currently be Bhutanese citizens who will either sell what they acquire worldwide or feed the local market.
The Price of the Most Expensive Fungi in the World
The Cordyceps are graded based on the thickness of the larval body. The thicker the material, the greater the price. Cordyceps are also classified based on their color, size, and weight. Cordyceps are divided into three color categories: golden yellow, white, and black. The golden yellow version costs more than the white and black versions. They are divided into three sizes: large, medium, and small, with lengths ranging from 2 to 5 cm. Cordyceps are graded as A++, A+, B, C, & D in laymen’s term. The Fungi can be roughly broken into eight types.
The wholesale prices for Cordyceps Sinensis currently range from $8,995 to $33,410 per kilogram, depending on the grade of fungus in which it has been categorised
The harvest of Cordyceps Sinensis in Bhutan requires significant labor and time. Highlanders from poor mountain areas travel to the high alpine valleys in the hope of making a good living. The super mushroom, on the other hand, offers significant health benefits as well as financial security.