Cordyceps: Leveraging the Larval into a Superfood Marvel
Cordyceps; yes, the name is strange, but not strange enough to completely suit the full scope of weirdness that lies at the center of this superfood’s origin story. Cordyceps is not a fragrant little herb or a delicate, nodding blossom demurely posing in the sun. Cordyceps is an entomopathogenic parasitic fungus. There, we said it. Nobody is particularly thrilled at the idea of a parasite. So to make yourself feel better you will harken back to 8th grade biology and the glass-half-full the teacher sometimes poured in order to make you and the other students feel better. "Oh, but we know that some parasites are wonderfully beneficial to their hosts, even necessary. Cordyceps is surely one of those marvelous 'parasites' that has a charming symbiotic relationship with the creature to which it attaches!"
Uh, no. Cordyceps rather rudely barges in on the larva of the Hepialidae moth, affixes itself without proper introduction and proceeds to suck the life out of the surprised (and not a little annoyed, we assume) caterpillar. Once the host caterpillar has been completely mummified, the fruiting body of the cordyceps fungus presents as a vividly colored, finger-shaped structure which is then harvested for its rather profound health benefits, which for several thousand years (literally) have been a matter of traditional medicinal record. Still, this is one of those dietary foundation stories whose opening narrative is tough to reconstruct.
It would seem that back in the mist-shrouded, unrecorded epoch before written history began, someone with a vivid imagination plucked one of these cordyceps growths from the mummified body of an insect, popped the fungal finger into his mouth and danced a jig of good feeling. Thereafter, the sensation of ‘wellness’ has been sufficiently profound that Cordyceps remains today one of the most popular ayurvedic supplements in the history of eating strange things for optimal health. Now that modern science is taking a closer look, the mechanisms employed by cordyceps to work its internal wonder is better understood, validating, yet again, what “traditional”cultures have know all along. We are, after all, a rationalist species and want to know how things work once they’ve proven themselves effective over several millennia.
Madly anti-oxidant and naturally detoxifying, cordyceps has also been shown to slow tumor growth, boost the immune system, coddle the kidneys, push back against group A strep infections, and goose stamina and physical endurance. Most significantly (to some), cordyceps is also a very popular and effective aphrodisiac for going on 4,000 years. Which may be the one consolation the fading caterpillar has as the lights go out. "At least I am surrendering my body in the name of human sexual potency, and a candlelit evening of poetry and song."