Cordyceps, the strange 'herb'

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Cordyceps Sinensis, photo courtesy of William RaftiCall it a woman's prerogative if you like, but I have a newfavorite herb!

Now, I'm not fickle with my herbs, just adventurous, exploratory and passionate. So when a new herb grabs my attention I have to shout it from the rooftops. And cordyceps makes me want to do just that.

Cordyceps looks similar to grass, but in fact it belongs to the family of parasitic mushrooms growing on caterpillars in the high plateaus of China, Nepal and Tibet. This is why it has so many colorful names -- Winter Worm-Summer Grass, Deep Fungus, Caterpillar Fungus, and Vegetable Caterpillar -- along with all of its pinyin names of Dong Chong Xia Cao, Dong Chong Zia Cao and Hsia Ts'Ao Tung Ch'Ung. Botanically it is Cordyceps sinensis in the Ascomycetes, or Clavicipitaceae family.

How cordyceps infects a host caterpillar isn't entirely clear, but the caterpillars susceptible to the medicinal form of this fungus live underground and probably inhale or ingest cordyceps spores on the roots that make up their normal diet. The cordyceps then takes over, digesting the caterpillar from the inside out. The end result of this symbiotic process is a fungus that looks like a worm (often with the host worm still attached!).

Cordyceps has been called a very "strange substance" by the Chinese because it is considered half vegetable and half animal. Because of this, it is both a yin and yang tonic.

The fruiting body of cordyceps was once one of the most expensive medicinals ever. Now cordyceps mycelia, the substrate on which the mushroom grows, are used instead.  (The mycelia are the white strands under the mushroom, or the actual fungal organism most akin to a "plant," whereas the mushroom itself is the fruit.)

When Chinese Olympic track stars took it for endurance (it increases oxygen to the heart and muscles of the body), cordyceps made its international fame. However, it has many more uses than that, of course.

A Kidney and Lung yang tonic, it also nourishes the yin and so may be used long-term. Traditionally it has been used for lung cancer because it is anti-cancerous, nourishes the yin and substantially increases immunity. It fact, it makes a fabulous immune tonic when combined with reishi, astragalus, ginseng and lycii. I have seen this combination strengthen someone's immunity when astragalus alone would not work.

As well, cordyceps clears phlegm and stops bleeding, treating dry cough with difficult expectoration and possible blood, difficulty in inhaling, wheezing, asthema, emphysema, frequent urination, urinating on sneezing, weakness, low back pain, lethargy and/or lowered immunity. As this herb is very gentle, it should be taken for several months for lasting results.

I love the taste and smell of cordyceps. I've seen it available as a drink and will try that myself next. To double its effectiveness, cook with duck, chicken, pork or fish (use whole fungus or tablets). In China it is often stuffed into the stomach of a duck, which is then cooked and eaten. This is said to have similar properties to the highest quality of ginseng -- high praise indeed!

There are many species of cordyceps growing around the world. I wonder where our "local" cordyceps grows and if it has similar properties.

CORDYCEPS

Part Used: fungus growing on caterpillar larvae (sometimes called a mushroom)

Energy, taste
and Organs affected: warm; sweet; Lungs, Kidneys

Actions: tonify Yang
(and Yin)

Properties: tonic, hemostatic

Biochemical
constituents: cordyceptic acid, cordycepin, glutamic acid, phenylalanine, proline, histidine, valine, oxyvaline, arginine, alanine, d-mannitol, Vitamin B12

Dose: 4.5-12 gms, decoction

Precautions: acute Exterior conditions (colds, flu, etc.)

As with any yang tonic, even if it nourishes the yin, too, it can be overstimulating if taken in excess, particularly in any who have qi stagnation. Cut back your dose or discontinue of you experience feelings of heat, increased heart rate, insomnia or sweating.

Other: Because it tonifies both Yang and Yin, it is safe and can be taken over a long time.

This herb is at risk of becoming endangered; only use the cultivated variety.

Indications: impotence, sore and weak lower back, legs and knees, cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, wheezing from Deficient Yin, emphysema, pulmonary TB, lowered immunity, spontaneous sweating, weakness, dizziness; increases stamina and endurance

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