Pass the Infected Caterpillar Himalayan Viagra

Researching Tibet is like reading about some fantastic other world, where psychonaut monks chart the realms beyond death, and body breakers offer up corpses as alms to the scavengers of the sky.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that Tibetans also dig up a strange root that’s allegedly “half vegetable, half caterpillar” and sell it for bank as an energy booster and aphrodisiac. Yes, if you’ve ever ventured into a Chinese apothecary for a little “tea for dong,” then this might just be what you left with.

According to Lonely Planet, the Tibetans call the mysterious root yartsa gunbu and the Chinese know it as d?ngchóng xiàc?o or “winter-worm, summer-grass.” As for Western scientists, they just call it Cordyceps sinensis.

(That’s it pictured on the sign, but there’s a better image of it in the original post.)

What we actually have here is a parasitic fungus that infects and mummifies the caterpillars of Thitarodes ghost moths while they winter in the ground, feeding on roots. When springtime rolls around, the host is dead and the fungus sends a stalk up to the surface world to release more infectious spores.

The fungus-stuffed bugs have been a prized commodity in Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. According to the American Herb Association, the ghastly little morsel is used to:

•    fight cancer
•    protect bone marrow during radiation treatment
•    protect against liver and kidney damage
•    fight flu
•    increase energy and stamina
•    lower blood sugar
•    fight depression
•    increase blood flow to the penis ala Viagra
•    destroy bacteria, viral, fungal, protozoal, and malarial infections

Plus, the taste is reportedly “warm and sweet.” Delightful!

Of course there’s a downside to this wonder fungus. When spring rolls around, harvesters invade with little or no concern for the local environment. After all, the price of yartsa gunbu rose by 900 percent between 1998 and 2008 and, running between Y3000 ($39) and Y40,000 ($517) per kilo, it’s one of the priciest commodities in the region.

According to New Scientist, this “caterpillar run” damages the environment and puts at risk a unique species that Medical science barely understands. At least for now, no one has figured out how to farm the fungus either.

Still, yartsa gunbu remains a hot commodity. If you absolutely must buy it, at least be aware that unscrupulous fungi merchants sometimes insert a small twig inside the caterpillar to increase its weight and cost.

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Secondary Image credit: Erik Törner/Creative Commons

Original Published at HSW: Pass the Infected Caterpillar Himalayan Viagra


Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.

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