Alexa Yarsagumba: World’s most expensive medicinal fungus

Dhaka, Tuesday   17 September 2019


Yarsagumba: World’s most expensive medicinal fungus


 Published: 12:13 AM, 22 August 2019   Updated: 04:09 PM, 25 August 2019

Photo: Collected

Photo: Collected

Yarsagumba is the weirdest herb and the world’s most expensive medicinal fungus. It is also known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’ because of its supposed libido-boosting powers. This is Cordyceps or also Ophiocordyceps Sinensis. It’s better known around the world as Yartsa Gunbu, Yarsagumba or Himalayan Viagra. The caterpillar-parasitizing fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis is an insect-borne fungus, widely known as “Chinese caterpillar fungus” in English and “Yarsagumba (fungus cum larvae)” in Nepali. Ophiocordyceps sinensis, an intricate fungus-caterpillar complex after it parasitizes the larva of the moth, is a highly prized medicinal fungus known widely for ages due to its peculiar biochemical assets.

What is Yarsagumba?

Actually, Yarsagumba is a unique caterpillar-fungus fusion that occurs when mushroom spores infect and mummify a ghost month larva living in the soil. Two to six centimeters long, the fungus shoots above the soil, acting as a tiny, finger-shaped flag for harvesters to find. This peculiar hybrid is the world’s most expensive biological resource. Yarsagumba can cure various difficult diseases. Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for 2000 years, the caterpillar fungus is a highly prized tonic, touted for its ability to increase energy and vitality, strengthen lung and kidneys, treat cancer and asthma and perhaps most famously cure impotence and boost libido its supposed aphrodisiac effects earning it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.” Yarsagumba is known as an immune booster. It's also known as a great aphrodisiac. It works in a way similar to Viagra. It's considered to be helpful for impotence in men and it's considered to be a great stimulant.


Cordyceps was discovered about 1500 years ago in Tibet. The Nepalese and Tibetan herders who, in springtime, noticed grazing yaks and goats acting strangely in the high mountain pasture. After eating this strange-looking substance, the animals would become frisky and start chasing each other around with lustfull intent. Soon the locals after consuming Yarsagumba also experienced this added vigor. The earliest known documentation of Yarsagumba is by Nyamnyi Dorje, a Tibet physician and lama who lived from 1439-1475. His text titled “An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities”, describes the value of the mushroom as a sexual tonic.

About 1000 years later, the Emperor’s physicians in the Ming Dynasty learned about this Tibetan wonder and used this knowledge with their own wisdom to develop powerful and potent medicine. Initial records of Cordyceps as a medicine date from the Qing Dynasty in China in 1757. Its current high international profile and demand developed only sometime in 1993 when many Chinese long-distance runners broke world records. The British mycologist Berkely first described it in1843 as Sphaeria sinensis Berk.

The fungus was known as Cordyceps sinensis until 2007, when the molecular analysis was used to amend the classification of the Cordycipitaceae and the Clavicipitaceae, resulting in the naming of a new family Ophiocordycipitaceae and the transfer of several Cordyceps species to Ophiocordyceps. Hence Cordyceps sinensisis also known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis. There are more than 350 types of so-called Cordyceps or its substitutes in terms of their medicinal values have been found worldwide today.


Where it found

The fungus is found in the Tibetan Plateau and in regions like Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Bhutan, India, and Nepal, as well as across the southern flank of the Himalayas.


Yarsagumba is brown in color.

Cultivation and collection

With the melting of the snows in the Himalayas, hordes of villagers of Nepal’s far western region trek up to the alpine pastures near the towering Himalayan peaks where they pitch up camps for an extended stay of almost eight weeks, braving the cold and harsh environment. Schools are closed and entire villages are emptied, aside from the elderly and the sick who cannot handle the harsh, steep and long trek thousands of meters above sea level. When the annual yarsagumba harvesting season hits, all available hands and eyes become engaged in the lucrative hunt.  They spend their days mostly on all fours, crawling through the shrublands, digging with the utmost care when they espy an unusual kind of mushroom called Yarsagumba. This, they brush gently with a toothbrush and keep it in their pickers’ basket. They come in their thousands, lured by the high returns promised for finding this unusual herb. Experienced pickers can earn over 2,500 dollars each during a good season, five times more than the annual average earnings of a Nepali.

China and Korea have been investing a great effort in research for the cultivation of this fungus. A wide range of population was encouraged to use it as a clinical trial in order to establish its chemical composition, therapeutic activity, toxicity, and many other facts.

Yarsagumba is collected in large quantity before it attains the maturity. The first reason is that it is sold based on its weight. It attains the highest weight just before maturity due to the compactness of the inner tissue. Every year, the herb is collected in Nepal during May-July and sold to the business people directly in order to sustain the livelihood in rural areas. It prefers temperatures below 69 degrees Fahrenheit, and it ceases its growth at 77 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The best times to pick it in Nepal are May and June, though it can also be found in Bhutan, India, and Tibet. More than 150,000 individuals set out to harvest the fungus in the May to June season. In Nepal, Yarsa is available in 27 different districts between the altitudes of 3000-5000 meters. Three and a half thousand individual pieces make up a kilo and about 2500kgs are collected every year in Nepal alone.

China has the largest market, and some of its traders sell the fungus to the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, and Japan, The Kathmandu Post reported.


Himalayan Viagra has been used for at least 1000 years as an aphrodisiac or as a treatment for hyposexuality. An article published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine noted that the caterpillar fungus can also treat night sweats, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, asthenia, arrhythmias, and other heart, respiratory, renal, and liver diseases. The review of the mysterious fungus stated that it holds more than 30 bioactivities, such as antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant activities. Other bioactivities suggest that the caterpillar fungus has anti-depression, anti-arteriosclerosis, and anti-osteoporosis elements, and it may prevent and treat bowel injury, promote endurance, and improve learning-memory. 

The most common uses for the fungus by traditional healers include erectile dysfunction, female aphrodisiac, malignant tumors, bronchial asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, cough and cold, jaundice, alcoholic hepatitis.

How it works

Cordyceps might improve immunity by stimulating cells and specific chemicals in the immune system. It may also have activity against cancer cells and may shrink tumor size, particularly with lung or skin cancers.

It is also used after a kidney transplant. It is also used for liver problems, improving athletic performance, and many other conditions but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.

Side effects

Common side effects of cordyceps include increasing symptoms of autoimmune diseases, slow blood clotting (increased risk of bleeding in people with bleeding disorders) and increased risk of bleeding during surgery.

What other drugs interact with cordyceps?

Cordyceps has no known severe or serious interactions with other drugs. Cordyceps has moderate interactions with at least 72 different drugs. Mild interactions of cordyceps include amikacin, anamu, cyclosporine, danshen, devil’s claw etc.

Why people interest in Yarsagumba?

People are interested in using or eating Yarsagumba for centuries to treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease, and low sex drive. Supplements and products containing Cordyceps extract have become increasingly popular due to their many purported health benefits.

Cordyceps are thought to increase the body’s production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate, which is essential for delivering energy to the muscles. This may improve the way your body uses oxygen, especially during exercise.

The elderly have traditionally used Cordyceps to reduce fatigue and boost strength and sex drive. Several studies have found that Cordyceps increase antioxidants in aged mice, helping improve memory and sexual function. Cordyceps’ potential to slow the growth of tumors has generated significant interest in recent years. Researchers believe the fungi may exert anti-tumor effects in several ways.

Cordyceps contains a special type of sugar that may help treat diabetes. Diabetes is a disease in which the body either does not produce or respond to the hormone insulin, which normally transports the sugar glucose into your cells for energy. Cordyceps may keep blood sugar levels within a healthy range by mimicking the action of insulin. Besides Yarsagumba holds many other positive sides that is why people are interested in using or eating Cordyceps.

Why high price

Yarsagumba’s health benefits are believed to have been known from some 1500 years ago, and in ancient times, it was said to be taken as a potent tonic by kings and noblemen. Its pharmacological properties include combating the rigors of stress by strengthening and rejuvenating an over-exerted system. In Chinese traditional medicine, it is said to be a cure-all for all types of ailments. This includes strengthening lung and kidneys, increasing energy and vitality, stopping hemorrhaging, and so on and so forth. However, the most publicized benefit of Yarsagumba is to enhance weak libidos that is Yarsagumba is believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. Besides this, it is touted highly for its anti-aging benefits. In other words, to summarize, Yarsagumba is believed to be an excellent tonic for the nourishment of the body as well as for the brain and its long-term use is said to improve organic functioning as well as the immune system. And, it must be kept in mind that since Yarsagumba is a natural product, the chances of any side effects are minimal. So it is understood why Yarsagumba is so highly prized all over the world.

Yarsagumba is said to be the most expensive herb in the world today, one kilo of it fetching more than 10,000 US dollars in the international market. The fungus can fetch as much as $100 per gram on the Chinese market, making it pricier than gold. One researcher put the global market at between $5 billion and $11 billion per year. In the old days too, Yarsagumba couldn’t be said to come cheap. Travelers have noted that in 1890, black, rotten specimens cost four times their weight in silver (Cooke, 1892).

When starts to be popular

Yarsagumba’s popularity in the West is not centuries-old but of more recent times. In the 1990s, the tabloids went crazy over “Ma Junren’s Army” and their world record-breaking feats. Ma Junren was a legendary Chinese coach whose women runners achieved astonishing times in the middle and long-distance races, shattering a number of long-standing world records by significant margins. When asked for the secret of his fantastic successes, Ma Junren disclosed that his runners were fed Yarsagumba three times daily so as to fight the stress involved in rigorous training in the high mountains. Soon enough, tabloids globally had latched on to the scent of a sensational story. The rest, as they say, is history. And so was born the legend of Yarsagumba, the “miracle” mushroom.

Yarsagumba leads to clashes, deaths!

Increasing demand for the fungus, though, has led to clashes among the people trying to harvest it. As the number of people harvesting yarsagumba grows, tensions have risen and in some cases, the conflict has led to deaths. In the second week of June in 2014, two locals were killed and many injured in a clash with police in Dolpa, a district of Nepal bordering with Tibet. The incident occurred after locals demanded more transparency about the fees for harvesting Yarsagumba charged by the local community managing the Shey Phokshundo National Park.