The Weird and Wonderful Cordyceps militaris Mushroom aka The Puppet Master
The entire fungal kingdom can seem strange, largely due to how little we still know about it. Within this mysterious kingdom, the award for the strangest of all strange mushrooms would definitely have to go to the Cordyceps genus. Like something out of science fiction, these otherworldly fungi feed off of insects whose bodies they inhabit. These glowing orange mushrooms essentially possess and control their insect hosts like marionette puppets. It’s no wonder these fungal oddities earned the moniker “The Puppet Master” mushrooms.
What else should you know about these weird, wonderful, and unique mushrooms? They’re as beneficial as they are bizarre. Dig in and learn why Cordyceps militaris is one of our favorite fungi.
What Are Cordyceps Militaris?
Cordyceps militaris is a species of fungi that is native to Asia and has been found at impressively high altitudes. It is also known as “the scarlet caterpillar” due to its vibrant color and slender appearance. This scarlet caterpillar mushroom was first named in 1753 by Carl Linneaus, “the father of taxonomy,” after he discovered them growing in the wild.
This particular species is mainly found sprouting its orange coral-like fruiting body in grasslands or on woodland edges during the late summer and autumn seasons. It reaches lengths between 1.25-inches and 2-inches.
Historically and contemporarily, Cordyceps militaris has been prized for its health-related attributes. Although there are varieties of Cordyceps species all over the world, Cordyceps militaris is well known due to its use in Traditional Chinese Herbalism. It has been added to culinary dishes and steeped into tea as a way to support healthy stamina and energy on a cellular level.* For this reason, it is the main mushroom in our Energy tincture.
Most notably, this mushroom is entomopathogenic which means it parasitizes insects. “So you’re telling me that this mushroom mummifies insects AND has functional properties?” Yes, this is absolutely correct and why we believe the Cordyceps militaris is one of the coolest mushrooms we have come across, and we continue to be amazed at all that they can do. But don’t worry, the Cordyceps we use in our products don’t use any insects and are grown on a vegan substrate. No insects were harmed in the making of our mushrooms.
How Does Cordyceps Take Over Its Insect Victims’ Body?
Cordyceps militaris mushrooms are essentially fungi parasites. Like most living creatures, the Cordyceps has one goal: to reproduce and carry on its genetics in doing so. But how does this fungus control its prey?
For a long time, scientists were stumped. But thanks to recent studies out of Penn State, we now have a clearer understanding of how the Cordyceps militaris is able to control the body of its insect victims. Here’s how:
Cordyceps Attack of the Killer Fungi
Cordyceps militaris uses its thread-like hyphae to entangle an insect from within. These thin hyphae stretch out, then begin to multiply and form the mushroom’s mycelia. This process slowly and internally mummifies the insect. But it is the way the mycelia (or “mushroom roots”) form a structure around the host’s brain that allows them to take over its motor function.
Around the brain, the Cordyceps’ mycelia absorb nutrients from around the brain region, all while communicating with one another. This network of communication, plus a lack of nutrients, cut off the host’s brain from its body. With the death of the host’s brain, the mycelium is able to “drive” the host.
The biomass of mycelium eventually replaces the host’s tissue. Meanwhile, the fruiting body of the Cordyceps produces a mushroom “spore factory.” Spores are like the seeds of the plant world. Inherently microscopic, spores are what allow the mushroom to continue to reproduce.
Where Do Cordyceps militaris Insect-Zombies Go Once Infected?
Once the Cordyceps militaris has taken over its host’s body, it begins moving to an ideal sporing location. Often the host insect is buried in the ground or in well-decayed wood where the mushroom will then produce spores from an orange club-like stem.
When it comes to other Cordyceps species, insects infected above ground are commonly ‘driven’ to areas elevated above the ground. These places include the undersides of leaves. This is an advantageous position for the Cordyceps because it allows the mushroom to rain its spores down onto the terrain and colonize more susceptible insects.
Other Notable Cordyceps Species: The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis
One of the most well-known examples of zombie insects and brain-controlling mushrooms is the relationship between Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and the carpenter ant. This species transforms ants into zombies on a mission to climb plants and sink their jaws into leaves. From there the fungi can cling to the leaf, drop its spores on an unsuspecting colony below, and create an entire legion of zombie ants. Neat, right?
Are Cordyceps Militaris Mushrooms Bad for the Environment?
No. Parasites tend to have a bad reputation, especially those that take over the bodies of their victims. However, they are a natural part of the ecosystem. When left in their natural environment, there is a balance between the fungi and their insect food.
In fact, over-harvesting of these mushrooms from their natural habitat may disrupt biodiversity and threaten the Cordyceps population. At Mushroom Revival, we only use eco-friendly and cruelty-free methods to grow and harvest the highest quality Cordyceps militaris in a controlled organic farm setting.
Cordyceps Militaris Mushroom: Bad for Insects, Good for Us!
Despite their naturally fatal effect on insects, Cordyceps offer an array of health benefits to humans.* While this fact is widely acknowledged in the east, where Cordyceps is referred to as “the Olympic mushroom,” they’re still growing in popularity in the U.S.* Only recently have Cordyceps undergone a fungal renaissance and begun to be utilized in the west.
How Do Cordyceps Mushrooms Benefit Us?
Cordyceps militaris mushroom may be used to support energy levels, endurance, and healthy lung capacity.* Its most prized compound, the energy-giving cordycepin, is molecularly similar to adenosine, which exists in all human cells. Adenosine is used by the body to regulate heart rate and balance metabolic energy.* Since our bodies don't differentiate between cordycepin and adenosine, cordycepin is essentially free energy!
Are Cruelty-Free Cordyceps Possible?
Absolutely. At Mushroom Revival, our sister farms focus on cultivating Cordyceps militaris mushroom in a manner that does not harm insects. Insects are the lifeblood of the ecosystem, after all, and we respect the natural balance of the natural world.
While we love this species of mushroom for its relatively easy cultivation, its unique shape and color, and its impressive health benefits, however, we do not love its carnivorous habit. So, we are able to cultivate them on a vegan substrate. No bugs are used in our facility. Instead, we use all certified organic and vegan ingredients.
Cordyceps: Weird, Wonderful, and Ready to Help You
One of nature’s weirdest organisms proves to be a helpful, life-giving substance and is finally accessible to the general public of the west. Here at Mushroom Revival, we love the beauty and uniqueness of all mushrooms, including Cordyceps. We even have a pet nickname for them and their spores. We call cordyceps “alien Cheetos,” and their spores, “Cheeto dust.”
You will notice our Cordyceps tincture has somewhat of a glow to it, similar to what you get when cooking with turmeric. This vibrancy reflects the glowing nature of the scarlet caterpillar mushroom. Plus, we think it's appropriate for the vibrancy it can bring to your life!
We know that beyond your curiosity about how this mushroom embodies insects, you will love this mushroom as much as we do, which is why we offer it in our ENERGY Tincture.
Want to learn more about these fascinating mushrooms? Learn how to grow your own.