Tibetan farmers are finding a new cash "crop" with a caterpillar fungus known in China as yartsa gunbu, or "summer grass winter worm." John Roach focused on the delicacy in a piece for National Geographic News, reporting that between 1997 and 2008, the nutty fungi's value rose 900 percent.
The caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is so named because, as Roach writes, it "takes over the bodies of caterpillar larvae then shoots up like finger-size blades of grass out of the dead insects' heads." In China, it's ground and used as a medicine to treat cancer, aging and a low libido. Other caterpillar fungus consumers treat it as an opulent garnish to win over business associates.
Roach also reports that the caterpillar fungus has changed the lives of many Tibetan farmers who harvest it:
To keep up with demand, rural harvesters spend about four weeks each spring stooped over on grassy slopes, pick axes in hand, searching for fungal gold. Over the course of a month, a prolific harvester can earn more than enough cash to live on for an entire year. In rural Tibet, the fungus accounts for at least 40 percent of people's cash income.
See the National Geographic piece for more information and images of the caterpillar fungus.
Photo by stevehicks