The name cordyceps refers to a genus of mushrooms that, for the most part, have a somewhat gruesome growing cycle that involves infecting and killing a host insect. Though there are many species of Cordyceps (around four hundred, in fact), the most well known in the world of medicinal mushrooms is Cordyceps Sinensis, known colloquially as the Caterpillar Fungus. Indeed, many people use the term genus name when they mean that specific species.
For the rest of this post, when we say “Cordyceps,” we are referring specifically to the Caterpillar Fungus variety unless otherwise stated. This particular fungus is highly sought after and, due to the scarcity of it, costs tens of thousands of dollars per pound. For anyone reading this post who is not familiar with the fungus, this should go a long way to explaining why people are so keen to grow Cordyceps at home.
If you want the fungus for personal use, it could save you a lot of money to grow at home rather than buy it, and if you are planning to grow them to become a seller yourself, well: tens of thousands of dollars per pound pretty much speaks for itself.
Unfortunately, this is a notoriously difficult fungus to get hold of due to the way it grows, not to mention where it grows. However, methods of cultivating this highly sought-after fungus are becoming more and more reliable, and you can now grow Cordyceps at home. Want to know more? Keep reading.
Why is Cordyceps So Hard to Get?
They are dispersed throughout the world from varied environments including rain forests. The natural habitat of Yarsagumba cordyceps is in the Himalayan Mountains—specifically the Tibetan Plateau—which presents a rather obvious barrier to just heading out and picking your own batch like you would with a more common mushroom.
Further complicating matters is the legality and licensing around picking Cordyceps. Even if you lived in a region where a trip to the Tibetan Plateau for a spot of Cordyceps-picking was feasible, you would need to pay for the right to do so, with Cordyceps being responsible for a substantial portion of the local economies and very closely regulated as a result.
In other parts of the world, especially rain forests, they are predominantly found turning insects into zombies and almost impossible to harvest.
Unfortunately, these mushrooms in the wild are all but impossible and impractical to collect.
And, until recently, home cultivation was not an option.
How Do I Grow Cordyceps At Home?
So, that’s enough background; how do you go about growing Cordyceps at home? There are two main strategies for approaching this challenge; home-inoculation and grow kits.
Even with these options, there are some hurdles to getting a good Cordyceps crop at home. The first of which is the substrate; Cordyceps grows inside caterpillars naturally. It is possible to get them to grow without an insect host, but it is much easier if you can let them grow as naturally as possible. Beyond their living host, there are also environmental conditions to worry about.
One of the natural regions that Cordyceps grow in, as we’ve mentioned, is high up in the Himalayan Mountains, which are not only colder than many parts of the world but also have a thinner atmospheric pressure due to the higher altitude. This is relevant because the way fungi determine when it is right to sprout a fruiting body (the mushroom part) is through exposure to the outside world. The mycelium—the main part of the fungus that you don’t usually see—grows away from things like air and sunlight, underground, in trees, or, yes, inside insects.
Therefore it treats sudden exposure to conditions that suggest the outside world as a sign that it has reached the surface and can begin sprouting a fruiting body that can shed spores and perpetuate the fungi lifecycle. This is a problem because the Cordyceps’ mycelium is looking for certain conditions before it will sprout a fruiting body, and those conditions are difficult to replicate in a small homegrown setup. Assuming that homegrown setup isn’t up a mountain somewhere.
So let’s take a look at these two methods a little more closely.
You can purchase inoculating fluid online, which contains spores that are ready for planting, though it is not always easy to find. You will need a substrate for your inoculating fluid to be mixed in with. Brown rice is considered particularly useful for this, though things like German millet and barley also work.
Get an appropriate container—mason jars are popular—and add around 2oz of your substrate with a further 2oz of distilled water. Cover your container and give it a good shake to thoroughly mix up the water and rice. The fact that we said distilled water is important because you don’t want chemicals and impurities in the water impeding the Cordyceps’ growth, and that should also explain why the next part is necessary.
Empty your substrate out onto a baking tray and place in a preheated oven of around 250 degrees Fahrenheit in order to sterilize it. If you went with our suggestion of using a mason jar, it is important that you don’t use the jar for baking in as the glass will almost certainly not be suitable for cooking in. Let your substrate bake for around twenty minutes, then pull it out and let it cool for at least an hour.
Once it has cooled, it’s time to transfer it back into your container. You may want to use a sterile spoon to avoid contaminating your freshly sterilized substrate.
For the next step, consult the information that came with your inoculating fluid on how it should be used. And, carefully following those instructions, add it to your substrate. Once done, seal your container and give it another thorough shaking.
Now, you could take your chances here and see if your spores will grow in the substrate alone, though you will have much lower chances of success. The best bet is to add a few hosts for your fungus to infect. Ghost moth larva is a popular option for this, though caterpillars also work. You can also use ground up silkworm pupa in your substrate to encourage the fungus to take hold without a living host present.
By far an easier option, grow kits come with everything you need to get started. The instructions may vary from grow kit to grow kit but should mostly involve pouring the pre-prepared substrate into a container and adding the inoculating fluid. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully to avoid mishaps.
Tending to Your Cordyceps
There are a few things you want to try and maintain as far as environmental conditions go to give you the best chance of a successful yield. Firstly, keep the humidity between 70-80%. You will also want to keep the temperature nice and level at around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Failing to meet these conditions could result in stunted growth—or no growth at all! It’s also worth mentioning that some experts recommend alternating between light and darkness to simulate the day and night cycle the fungi would experience in nature.
Once you’ve got all of this in place, settle in for a long wait. You should know within two weeks whether or not your Cordyceps has taken hold and has sprouted, but it will take at least sixty days for them to fully grow.
Growing Cordyceps for my Own Use
Growing Cordyceps for your own use is something of a double-edged sword in terms of the advantages and disadvantages it provides. On the one hand, you do not need as much equipment to grow a small amount of fungus as you would if you were growing it to sell as part of a business, but you do need some equipment, and it can feel like a much more significant investment when there is no financial return on the horizon. If you happen to live in an area where the climate is right, or you already have the equipment to hand, growing for your own use can be a very rewarding venture.
Growing Them as a Business
Growing for purposes of selling as part of a business can be a very lucrative venture if you are prepared to invest in the necessary equipment to grow the fungi on a larger scale. You will need to be able to regulate the climate of a much larger area to get a good yield from each batch of spores, which means additional costs in both upfront equipment purchases and long-term running costs. As with growing for home-use, if you already have the equipment—perhaps from a previous mushroom growing venture, you are well on your way to making a profitable operation selling Cordyceps.
The Best Way to Package Them For Sale
As with most perishable substances, environmental factors like humidity are the enemy. The best way to package Cordyceps—particularly if you expect to be shipping your product over long distances—is in airtight containers that can be sealed in a dry, cool environment. Plastic bottles and bags are often used for this purpose.
How Long do They Last Before They go Bad?
If stored in a cool, dry place, Cordyceps can be kept for an impressively long time while still maintaining all of the nutrients they are so desired for. Of course, there is no hard rule for how long any given fungus will keep, but as a general rule, you can expect to keep your Cordyceps for up to two years before you need to worry about it no longer being useable.
How do I Preserve Cordyceps?
Like most mushrooms, Cordyceps can be preserved through dehydration. Drying them out will remove the water content from the fungus and allow it to be stored for much longer without decomposing. Drying out Cordyceps is a practice used liberally when harvested in the wild due to the fact that it perishes quickly once removed, and demand for this fungus across the world means it may not always be heading for a quick sale.
Is a Cordyceps a Worm, Caterpillar, or a Mushroom?
Cordyceps is a genus of fungi that consists of around four hundred different species. The mushroom is actually the fruiting body of the fungi and is grown so that spores can be released to take root elsewhere and continue the lifecycle of the fungus. The body of the fungus—the mycelium—primarily lives in the substrate that the fungus takes up root in and is rarely visible above it, but when the mycelium encounters increased levels of oxygen, light, and temperature changes, it knows it has reached the surface of whatever substrate it is rooted in and may sprout a fruiting body—a mushroom.
Cordyceps is notable for the fact that it takes up root in a living insect, rather than soil or plants, like many other fungi.
Why the Confusion?
As mentioned above, Cordyceps tends to grow inside of a living host—insects in particular—and this is the first point of confusion. In the case of the Caterpillar Fungus that we have been discussing, the insect of choice is a caterpillar, which is why Cordyceps is sometimes mistakenly believed to be that insect.
The next point of confusion stems from the fact that Cordyceps—which have been a popular folk medicine around the regions where it grows for centuries—was once thought to be a kind of worm. When something is thought to be a particular kind of thing for hundreds of years, it can be difficult to shake that notion.
As we’ve stated, however, Cordyceps is, in fact, a fungus. It just happens to be a fungus that grows inside of a caterpillar and looks a little bit like a worm.
Growing Cordyceps from home is far from the easiest venture in terms of home fungi cultivation, though it is no longer impossible. The important thing is to have a clear idea of what you are doing it for.
If you want to make a business out of it, you need to be prepared to invest in the necessary equipment. On the other hand, if you are just growing for your own use, it is worth weighing up the costs of growing your own—factoring in your own time and effort—against the expense of just buying it.