Yarsagumba, the gold rush

Yarsagumba  is an exceptional and incredible herb that grows in the pastures above 3,300 meters up to 4000 meters in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Bhutan, India and Tibet.  The scientific name of this herb is Cordyceps Sinensis.

In Tibetan, ‘Yarsagumba’ literally means summer plant and winter insect. Yarsagumba is an exceptional combination of a yellow caterpillar and a mushroom. Just earlier to the rainy season, spores of the cordyceps fungus infect these Himalayan caterpillars that live on moist grass and hollow soil. After the fungus buries itself in the caterpillar’s body, it works its way out through the insect’s head. The parasite gets the energy from the caterpillar. The fungus parasite gets so much into the body of the caterpillar that it drains all the energy from the insect.  The insect dies. As temperature increases and the snow melts -Yarsagumba emerges and is collected at this time. During monsoon, the Yarsagumba is swept away.

Yarsagumba is also known as the ‘Himalayan Viagra’ or ‘Himalayan Gold’ for its high medicinal and commercial value. Numerous scientific studies and research reveals that it has antibiotic properties. It is used for lung and respiratory infection, pain, sciatica and backache. It also provides vitality and increases physical stamina of the body. According to the Hawaiian health products, it is found effective against tuberculosis as well as in the treatment of leprosy. Another major use of this is in the treatment of leukemia. It energizes lung, kidney and liver; improves memory and purifies blood; and keeps a person physically and mentally sound.

Every year during May and June, thousands of villagers from remote areas risk their own lives and head for high mountains to collect Yarsagumba. It is estimated that one villager can earn up to Rs. 2,500 a day by collecting Yarsagumba. The amount is beyond the monthly salary of many Nepalese households. Dolpa – a remote district in western Nepal is one of the areas where Yarsagumba is collected. Almost 50% of the annual supply of Yarsagumba comes from Dolpa alone. Here, not only the adults but school goers also take unofficial holidays in search of the gold rush.

Collection of Yarsagumba was illegal until 2001 but following its popularity, the Government lifted the ban. Instead, it imposed a royalty rate of Rs. 20,000 (US  $280) per kilogram. One kilo of Yarsagumba that cost about Rs. 315 in 1992 increased to Rs. 105,000 by the year 2002. But that has not stopped people from buying this mysterious half-caterpillar and half-mushroom.