Let’s take a look at cordyceps sinensis vs militaris so we can get a better grasp on the world of cordyceps mushrooms and their relationship with humans
In the discussion of cordyceps sinensis vs militaris, let’s begin by looking at the concept of saprophytic organisms. Saprophytes are organisms that consume dead material. These fungi are what eat wood, leaves, manure, corpses. These are the fungi that link death to life, that continue the cycle of nutrient flow on earth. Saprophytes are the typical mushroom cultivated by people. It is much easier to provide a mushroom with dead material and ideal conditions for growth and fruiting than doing the same on a living host. Things like logs and sawdust and wheat bran are very easy to store, handle, and manipulate to create favorable conditions for mushroom growth. Cordyceps militaris is a fungus that can be both parasitic and saprophytic making it possible to grow mushroom fruiting bodies even though a living host is not present.
Cordyceps sinensis vs militaris: Understanding the primary types of cordyceps mushrooms
Cordyceps as a common name typically refers to two species of mushroom, but scientifically it refers to a genus with over 400 species of mushrooms in it. This is the challenge with using common names; most of the time they apply to many different mushrooms. The two primary ones that are typically being referred to when people say “cordyceps” is Cordyceps sinensis (renamed in 2007 to be Ophiocordyceps sinensis) and Cordyceps militaris. There is a lot of debate as to whether these two mushrooms have similar amounts of compounds produced in them and if wild compared to cultivated mushrooms vary widely in compounds. Currently, the prices between the two show that one is valued much higher than the other. The craze for wild cordyceps has allowed prices to balloon with a kg in the US being sold at retail prices of $50,000! That is around $22,000 per pound! Now you might understand what this craze for cultivation is about. Amazingly, though, cordyceps militaris grown in China is sold for $16/lb in the US.
This is part of the confusion around the cultivation and consumption of cordyceps; there is confusion as to what is being talked about when using the word cordyceps. Are we talking about the mushroom that sells for $22,000/lb or $16/lb? Wild cordyceps is priced similarly to gold, so the availability of cultivated cordyceps for a relatively affordable price has many people consuming this mushroom. The assumption here is that cordyceps militaris and cordyceps sinensis contain similar compounds and have similar effects in the body. Another factor is the growing popularity of specialty mushrooms in general. More consumers are consuming specialty mushrooms as supplements and looking at them as a source of medicine. Cordyceps has a history of being used and revered for its impacts on the body. Cordyceps is a new mushroom which makes the consumption and cultivation of it exciting. Both growers and consumers that want to be on the cutting edge are exploring this mushroom to become an early adopter.
Cordyceps sinensis vs militaris: A look at the history
Cordyceps sinensis history: Some other common names for Cordyceps sinensis are: Caterpillar fungus, yartsa gunbu (translated as “winter worm, summer grass”) or dōng chóng xià cǎo in Chinese. We will refer to Cordyceps sinensis as Yartsa Gunbu. This mushroom has been collected in the Tibetan plateau for centuries. It has only recently become a huge aspect of the economy in that area. Yartsa Gunbu grows on caterpillars in the shrub lands of the Himalayas. The fungus infects the caterpillars in the fall and over the winter consumes the body. During the spring Yartsa Gunbu puts up a fruiting body, which matures into the summer and sporulates in the late summer. The caterpillars in that region shed their skin and are most susceptible to infection during the late summer. Collectors typically go out in May and June to collect this fungus.
The economic value of Yartsa Gunbu since the late 1990’s has been soaring. Over the ten years between 1998 and 2008 prices increased by 900%. Between 2008 and 2018, prices again increased by that much for larger specimens of Yartsa Gunbu. On average, the price is continuing to increase by 20% every year! Yartsa Gunbu accounts for almost 40% of the income for families in rural Tibet. This mushroom was first written about in a medicinal document written around 1450 in Tibet. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it first appeared in literature in 1694. The genus of Cordyceps was described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, but the introduction of Yartsa Gunbu to a western audience has been very recent, around the early 2000s.
Now let's take a look at cordyceps militaris in the Cordyceps sinensis vs militaris debate.
Cordyceps militaris history: Cordyceps militaris has been named and renamed since 1753 until it found its current nomenclature in 1818 in Paris. Cordyceps grows throughout Europe and the United States but is more common east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. It is a parasitic mushroom that consumes insect larvae and pupae primarily of moths and butterflies. Cultivation of this mushroom has been conducted in Asia much longer than in the United States. It seems cultivation started in the late 90’s and really exploded in Asia during the early 2000’s. Many Youtube videos and training courses around cultivation of the mushroom have been developed in Thailand, China, Vietnam, and South Korea. William Padilla-Brown, who was the technical advisor for this project and Ryan Gates were some of the first to grow fruiting bodies in the US. This was in late 2015 when they discovered a substrate and strain combination that produced fruiting bodies. Since then, strain and substrate trials have been conducted to find a combination that can produce commercially. William Padilla-Brown also offers courses on cordyceps cultivation. Since early 2016, many other farms and growers in the U.S. have developed an interest in cultivating cordyceps. There are several farms looking to develop methods that allow commercial cultivation of cordyceps, but this is still in the beginning stages. These farms sell cordyceps for very high prices to a niche market or further process the mushrooms into a value-added product.