Garden Discoveries: Cordyceps militaris

October 2, 2023

By Rowan Nygard

Often, fungi are overlooked when we consider the rich biodiversity of the world around us. By design it’s easy to miss them. As a result, there are niche pockets of life that we leave out when we speak about ecology. The minutiae in nature are charismatic, beautiful, and deserve the same reverence we hold for those that are more visible. 

Cordyceps militaris, or scarlet caterpillar club, is a rare and beautiful fungus that can be found in the thick carpets of moss that cover our mountains in Southern Appalachia. Finding any Cordyceps species, but particularly C. militaris opens a door into the incredible ecology of entomopathogenic fungi. To break down the etymology of the word, the Greek word “entomon” means insect and “pathogenic” means causing disease. These fungi play the role of predators in our forests. They infect, sometimes zombify, and recycle the death of insects into new life.

I stumbled across the bright orange fruiting body of Cordyceps militaris during my first day of work at Southern Highlands Reserve, in the lower moss bank. Gently, as to not disturb the cadaver or the moss, I dug down until I felt the chitinous body of a pupating moth. These photos are of a Lepidopteran host and the result of its fungal fate. Some might find the parasitic nature of these fungi too much to stomach, but life and death in the mountains never stagnate and ultimately lend themselves to the same creative force. To study the ghostly, the ephemeral, and even the macabre inspires entirely new vision of the natural world around us.

To find such a complex organism tucked in a gardened landscape is a first for me. It speaks to the informed and practiced hand of the caretakers of Southern Highlands Reserve. I’m eager to explore the mountain further and report back what treasures persist. The first time you look through a macro lens at the teeming life in a rotting log your perspective of the world shifts. The world gets larger and your steps get smaller. The biodiversity that exists just beyond the horizon when you look out your window is dumbfounding — gob smacking! Lace up your boots and shake hands with every creature you meet.