The Caterpillar Killer - Cordyceps militaris

Cordyceps militaris

This is an extraordinary fungus that parasitises and kills moth pupae. It is an ascomycete that invades the pupae in the ground. Eventually the fungus will fruit sending out unmistakable bright orange fruiting bodies above the ground. In the photograph above, you may be able to make out the black pupa below the fruiting body on the left. By the stage the fungus fruits, the pupa is a mush. 

It has been most commonly found in the uplands in Northern Ireland, mostly from mid September to December. It is unclear which moth pupae it is parasitising, but it may be one of the Eggars. It has been found high in the Belfast Hills, the Antrim Plateau, Fair Head and Slieve Croob, but also lower down in the Peatlands Park in Co.Armagh, Tollymore Forest Park and Saintfield Estate. 

There are a number of species of Cordyceps worldwide. Some like Cordyceps gracilis parasitise moth pupae, others like Cordyceps ophioglossoides and Cordyceps canadensis for example parasitise truffles in the genus Elaphomyces. 

Perhaps one of the most fascinating Cordyceps is C.sinensis found in China and Tibet. This is a highly prized edible fungus found in the mountains of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. It is made into soup and the best specimens will still be attached to their parasitised pupae. More than a culinary delicacy, it is one of the best medicinal mushrooms. It is known in Chinese as Dong Chong Xia Cao, (winter insect, summer grass). It grows in grasslands over 3000m in altitude and is usually collected at the summer equinox before the last snows have melted. In former times, its use was restricted to the Emperors' palace due to its rarity.

It is regarded as being excellent tonic for depletion, weakness and impotence. In one trial, 1 gram per day was given for 46 days to 155 men suffering from impotence and at the end of the study, 30% had returned to normal sexual life and 64% in total had  showed improvement. It is also used for excessive tiredness, persistent cough, debility, anaemia, asthma and cancer. As it is also good for strengthening the lungs and many world record beating (and controversial) Chinese athletes have taken it regularly. It is particularly recommended for the elderly. 

It is now grown on organic whole-grain substrates which make it an affordable medicine no longer restricted to emperors. 

Source: Mycology News Vol 1, Edition 1 ( a newsletter produced by Mycology Research Laboratories)

Cordyceps militaris

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