Oh Chinese medicine, how you fascinate me with your wacky shenanigans! I recently learned about the use of cordyceps fungus to treat all manner of seemingly unrelated ills. This caught my attention, because previously I had only known of cordyceps as "the fungus that makes ants go crazy."
I first learned about the cordyceps ant attacks when I read Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, an outstanding 1996 book about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. (Such a wonderful book that it's a shame how long it's been since I read it. I have added it to my book-buying queue.)
Among other insanities, author Lawrence Weschler discusses how the cordyceps fungus causes the infected ant to go mad. In a bizarre example of fungal brainwashing, the ant is somehow directed to climb a tall blade of grass, and latch on for dear life. Then the fungus consumes the ant's brain, mummifies its corpse, sprouts from the ant's forehead, and begins releasing spores.
In a similar fashion, the medicinal cordyceps fungus infects the soil-dwelling grub of a particular moth in Tibet. It causes the grub to move towards the surface of its burrow, so that the fungus can spread on the wind. As with the hapless ants, the cordyceps fungus then kills the grub, mummifies its body, sprouts from the grub's forehead, and releases spores into the Tibetan wind.
I'm not sure who first got the idea to try eating these fungal fruiting bodies, which look like tiny rubbery fern fronds. Personally I would not look at something sprouting from a caterpillar and think "Yum." However, because it is both animal (coming from the larval stage of an insect) and vegetable (actually a fungus, but traditional Chinese medicine doesn't distinguish between those two kingdoms), it is considered to be in perfect balance between warm and cold, yin and yang, male and female.
Known as "caterpillar fungus," this fungus is incredibly valuable, partly because it is so rare in occurrence, and so difficult to harvest. The harvest of the wild form requires people to wander the mountain slopes of Tibet in the springtime, searching the ground for signs of the tiny fungus and its attached dead caterpillar.
Its value has held, even though most caterpillar fungus is raised in an industrial setting, without the use of caterpillars. (It is cultured in a liquid culture medium.) However, the wild form is apparently preferred, because according to Wikipedia it fetches a price of around $1,435 per kilogram in China.
Chinese laboratory trials have shown caterpillar fungus to be useful in combating the effects of radiation poisoning, cancer, and heart disease. Apparently it has also proven to act as an antidepressant in trials with mice (how you can measure the depression of mice is questionable if you ask me).
Naturally, it is also said to prevent impotence, improve the libido, strengthen the stamina of athletes, support the immune system, and reduce fatigue. I'm afraid these are the standard placebo indicators, which makes me doubt any claimed medicinal qualities of cordyceps.
On the up side, it won't make you go crazy and climb a building, neither will it sprout from your head. And the worst reported side effect is constipation (and, at about $800 per ounce in stores, a bad case of Light Wallet Syndrome).
Photo credit: Flickr/pellaea