Cordyceps Sinensis otherwise known as 冬虫夏草，is a premium chinese herb that commands a price close to that of gold or even superceding it at times. It is not uncommon to see countless medicinal halls and TCM related businesses touting this herb to almost everyone, being a big ticket item, its definitely easier to rake in larger profits.
Pictured here is 10 grams worth of cordyceps, 20 caterpillars in total, on average each cordycep weighing 0.5 grams each. Cordyceps are graded in a similar fashion as to abalone in head count, its not uncommon to hear people talk about cordycep grades as 6000 pieces/条, 7000 pieces/条，3000 pieces/条, etc, which is the corresponding number of worms to make up one chinese Jin/斤 (500 grams). In the last decade, the prices of cordyceps grew 20% annually, and to date, is probably 1000% the price 10 years ago. In the business of cordyceps, size matters! The bigger the cordycep, the higher the grade and quality, small ones are usually very much cheaper. Cordyceps that are 800 pieces/条 or 1000 pieces/条 per Jin/斤, weighing 0.5g and higher are usually the biggest around, with its price ranging from $60 to $80 per gram. 6000/7000 pieces/条 per Jin/斤 may cost $15-$20 per gram depending on market fluctuations.
Being an expensive herb, one has to weigh the price to usefulness ratio. There is also a tremendous risk of fake cordyceps on the market, which is quite common if one does not know how to differentiate. Similar looking herbs on the market includes Xin Jiang Cordyceps (新疆虫草)，Xiang Bang Cordyceps (香棒虫草)，Ya Xiang BangCordyceps (亚香棒虫草)，Liang Shan Cordyceps （凉山虫草），and even many fake human-made Cordyceps (人造虫草). Some unscrupulous merchants have even inserted metal wire or lead wires into their cordyceps to make it weigh heavier just to rake in larger profits.
So before committing, think twice, and do some research. Real Cordyceps Sinensis is the cordycep sinensis infected caterpillar of the bat moth, which is found only between 3000-5000m above sea level at the tibetan plateau (青藏). The caterpillar of the bat moth has 4 prominent pairs of legs, which you can see in the picture below, if your caterpillar does not have these obvious legs, it is best to think twice than risk your money going down the drain. It has been also said, that the higher the altitude the cordycep comes from, the more golden brown it is, if it is dark brown, it is probably inferior in quality, from a lower altitude etc. Tibetan/Qinghai cordyceps are bigger, golden brown in color, whilst Yunnan cordyceps are small, wiry and thinner, brownish, often tied into clumps with red string.
The Thitarodes Moth, or the himalayan bat moth, lays its eggs underground. Upon hatching, the caterpillars can spend up to years underground feeding, before pulpating and morphing into a moth to complete their life cycle. Occasionally they may ingest some cordyceps sinensis spores, which then germinate within the caterpillar, with its mycelium overwhelming the caterpillar and eventually the caterpillar dies. The fungus then sprouts from the head of the caterpillar, like a grass in summer. Annually, tons of chinese, and tibetans comb the grasslands of the tibetan plateau looking for these little sproutings. And that is when the tragedy of the commons occur, the tibetan plateau is filled with billions of little holes from everyone digging for cordyceps, damaging the terrain, and the over-harvesting of wild cordyceps results in its depletion from the wild. Why does this depletion occur? Simple reason to it. The cordyceps must be harvested before the sporangium matures to release spores, else the worm will be totally shrivelled and useless, having no market value. To have the worm plump and big, the cordyceps is dug out after the sporangium has barely sprouted into a shoot. This largely eliminates the amount of mature cordyceps in the wild, and thus lesser spores available to further infect other worms. In time to come, cordyceps may become exponentially rarer.
The best cordyceps are believed to be from Qing Zang Yu Shu Plateau 青藏玉树, and Tibet Naqu 西藏那曲 areas. After the mad frenzy by everyone digging for cordyceps, many people end up at the Xining Cordyceps market, one of the biggest cordyceps trading posts in the region. It is a little queer a place, particularly how rare and expensive cordyceps is, yet people come forward with their harvest in simple plastic bags. Trading is unique here, there is no verbal offer, instead to transact or make an offer, one has to use hand signs under a towel with the seller/buyer to negotiate.
Do not be surprised to see people spraying water on their cordyceps or buyers using x-ray machines to evaluate the cordyceps. Many dishonest cordycep sellers spray some water on their cordyceps, as each can absorb a little bit of water, thus increasing the overall weight of the pile. This can raise their profits by tens of percent, but caveat emptor, the buyer may be buying less, and their purchase will grow mouldy soon! X-ray machines are common in Xining market, each batch of cordyceps undergoes X-ray as some other dishonest sellers may also insert metal pieces into their cordyceps to increase the weight. People may also coat the cordyceps with heavy metals, just to weigh it down, and thus under the X-ray, if the cordyceps is black, do not buy!! This means it has been laced with heavy metals. There are also some reports of people using glue to stick broken pieces of cordyceps together, disguising it as a big caterpillar etc.
The Medical Benefits of Cordyceps, is it worth the money?
Let us be down to earth here, being a scientist myself, it is accepted by most, that if you take cordyceps and put it under the microscope, it is definitely highly contaminated, by impurities such as mud, bacteria, parasite eggs etc, many which can pose as health problems. Cordyceps is notoriously difficult to wash, as if its exposed to water for too long, it will shrink in size. If washed in water for over 3 mins, more than 50% of cordycepcin, the useful adenosine derivative found cordyceps, is lost. The traditional method for processing cordycep involves the use of Yellow Wine or Huang Jiu (黄酒), but nowadays, just to make things sell well, look presentable, there are coarse washing methods, quick scrubs with toothbrushes etc, many of these processes that can lead to much of the valuable contents being lost. So when you buy your cordycep in a shop that is far and distant from the place of origin, do you expect the cordycep quality to be perfect, premium and loaded chock full of goodness? It is a blind market, no one can really verify unless biochemical tests are used, people would just listen, trust sellers/shops, and remain cognitively dissonant, i.e. if they pay a super premium price for something, then it has to be good!
Cordyceps Sinensis cannot be cooked at high temperatures too, it is best steeped in water/broth below 60 degrees celcius, above which much of the deterioration of useful compound occur. In storage, it is best to store everything in the cold, and in a nitrogen atmosphere with no oxygen at all, many valuable compounds in cordyceps are easily oxidised and may have poor half lives in poor storage conditions. Unfortunately I have almost yet to see any shop locally storing their cordyceps properly.
According to the chinese pharmacopoeia, Cordyceps sinensis is first noted and recorded in Ben Cao Cong Xin 《本草从新》. Its properties range from warm to neutral, benefiting the lungs and kidneys, replenishing essences, ability to stem bleeding, clear phlegm, and strengthen the respiratory system. It also channels Yang energy into the Kidneys, promoting its function. It is recommended that 3 to 9 grams to be taken as a daily dosage for good effects. 3 to 9 grams!!! That is a crazy price, even at the cheapest and lowest grades, one might have to pay between fifty dollars to a few hundred dollars for a day’s dosage! Taking it in small amounts like 0.5 grams, one cordycep etc, is not of much use.
In the South-east Asian region, most people suffer from Lung heatiness; it is not very easy to find someone in this region fully suitable for the use of cordyceps. As for replenishing Kidney Yang energy, many other herbs, at prices thousands of fold cheaper, may work much better in an economical sense, than the large use of cordyceps. An honest opinion from me, despite being from the Huo Shen Pai 扶阳/火神派, is that this is not value for money Yang energy. It may be misdirected, misappropriated and the public being mis-informed, after all most chinese medicinal halls want to make money, something of a higher priority than public health. So a pinch of salt with your cordyceps, think twice, thrice, and probably 10 times more before buying, and before gifting it. Buy something else, give something else. So that your money will be able to bring the biggest health benefits to your loved ones without burning a hole in your pocket. Consult a licensed chinese physician for a body type analyies, from then on decide the tonics needed, and decide whether cordyceps can or should/should not be taken.