The caterpillar fungus at an trading expo in Qinghai. (Photo/Xinhua)
Up in the Himalayas, a fungus is germinating the corpse of a ghost moth after having paralyzed and fed on the unsuspecting bug. The shell will soon produce a fruiting body that can sell for up to 120,000 yuan (US$19,600) for half a kilogram in Lhasa, and this is in the cheaper range of prices for the rare and highly sought-after traditional medicine, the Guangzhou-based 21st Century Business Herald reports.
Even a low-quality sample of the caterpillar fungus, as it is commonly known, can be sold at around 70,000-80,000 yuan (US$11,400-$13,000)/half kg, said Ma Jinxiang, whose shop in the cordyceps (sac fungi) market can make daily sales of 1 million yuan (US$163,000) in the off season between August or September. Sales can double during the peak months of May and June.
Most caterpillar fungus dealers in Lhasa are Muslims and there are nearly 100 such shops in the Tibetan capital.
China produces 130 tons of the fungus a year, chiefly from mountains above 3,500 meters in Sichuan's Aba, Qinghai's Yushu and Tibet's Laqu and Chamdo. More than 100,000 dealers are busy in May and June buying the medicine from sprawling markets near the harvesting areas.
Ma said he initially had to hike to the sites where the fungus is produced, but now his Tibetan harvester contacts will bring the medicine to him. Many inland traders prefer to go the production sites to buy directly.
The medicine has been touted as an aphrodisiac and a panacea able to cure anything from fatigue and cancer. Evidence for such claims is a muddied mix of anecdote and observation through traditional Chinese medicine.
Since China opened the Chinese medicine market in the 1980s, cordyceps prices in general have been on an uptrend. In the early 1990s, cordyceps was priced at 2,000 yuan (US$325)/kg, and surged to 15,000 yuan (US$2,540)/kg in 2003. In 2007, its price jumped to 120,000 yuan per kg, but tumbled to 30,000 yuan (US$4,900)/kg during the global financial crisis in 2008. It began to rebound since 2009 and has been on the rise until now.
In the areas where the fungus grows, schools will give students more than one month of "caterpillar fungus holiday." Parents can take their children to dig and collect the precious substance.
Villagers in the production areas of the fungus have exploded with wealth. Many have bought houses in Lhasa and only going back to their hometowns to dig up the golden fungus for two months of the year, Ma said.