Cordyceps its History and Cultivation

Cordyceps has been used for a long time in China and Tibet. For at least a thousand years according to the written record. It has always been very highly regarded, but it has also been the most expensive herbal raw material in the world. This is because it only grows at high elevation in the Himalayas around Tibet and Nepal and in small border sections of India and China. The high altitude makes its collection difficult, and this rarity of Cordyceps has limited its use by the general public. The scarcity and high price lead many people to try to cultivate Cordyceps like a normal farm product. But unlike the common button mushroom that we find on pizzas worldwide, Cordyceps proved to be extremely difficult to grow. 

It was not until 1972 that the first successful Cordyceps cultivation was achieved. The first Cordyceps cultures were isolated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in that year. These strains were not isolated from Tibet, where most of the top quality Cordyceps comes from, but rather they were isolated from specimens found in Qinghai province in Central China. Originally three different strains of Cordyceps were isolated. The first three strains, named CS-1, CS-2 and CS-3, did not have the fast growth characteristics that make commercial cultivation practical. It was the fourth culture that had been isolated by this institute, named CS-4, that was hardy and fast growing. So this CS-4 strain was chosen for commercial production. Different strains in mushrooms are like different breeds in dogs. Chihuahuas and Golden Retrievers and Great Danes are all dogs, but they are all quite different in terms of size and personality. They are not alike at all. Or consider apples, different strains like the Red Delicious, or the green Granny Smith apples, or the Yellow Delicious apples are all apples, but they taste quite different, and they have different sugar content and even different textures and uses. Or as a scientist would say, they all have a different “Analytical Profile”. Not all Cordyceps are the same, just like not all apples or all dogs are the same.

But back to Cultivated Cordyceps: This CS-4 culture proved itself a good candidate for commercial growth, so it was evaluated as a substitute for wild Cordyceps. It was tested for its medical potential, and by 1988 it had been approved in China as a medicine under the name Jin Shui Bao. As part of the approval process to bring this to market, many clinical and safety trials were conducted showing its efficacy and safety. That is the reason there are so many scientific articles available on this particular strain called CS-4. After more than 20 years of clinical observation, some of the results have been quite astounding. There are some conditions for which Cordyceps has proven to be the best possible choice.

But that happened a long time ago in terms of science. Think of the advances that have been made in all the sciences over the last 38 years. That is how long ago CS-4 was isolated. CS-4 is a good dietary supplement, but just because CS-4 was the first Cordyceps cultivated and studied certainly does not mean it is still the best choice today. Every aspect of science and technology has advanced over that period of time. (Think about computers 40 years ago…) Virtually no other medicine of that earlier time is still considered to be a first line defense against today’s health threats, yet many people today are taken in by the marketers that still use that early information on CS-4, telling their customers that CS-4 is the best Cordyceps for their use. This is just simply incorrect. We have learned a lot in those 40 years, and now we know there are many more options for Cordyceps today, and many other strains of Cordyceps have been developed that are more potent than CS-4.

Back in 1972 when CS-4 was isolated there was no such thing as DNA analysis. So at that time it was not realized that CS-4 contained only a part of the Cordyceps genome. CS-4 is closely related to Cordyceps sinensis, but it is not “true Cordyceps sinensis”. CS-4 is a related species called an Anamorph. The correct Latin name for CS-4 is Paeciliomyces hepialis chen, not Cordyceps sinensis. This variation from Cordyceps sinensis is due to a unique feature of Cordyceps called “Part Spore Reproduction”