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Other Names: Lepidium peruvianum
Cruciferous (Broccoli, Turnips, Mustard)
Vegetable Food, Nutrition, Medicine
Moderate; matures 8-10 months from planting
Small mat-type plant.
Borne from a central raceme, small off-white, self-fertile.
Intolerant of both salt and draught.
Maca grows naturally in soils of poor nutrition, but in commercial plantings is supplemented with animal manures.
Maca is a very hardy crop, native to lands which may experience freezing weather year-round.
Maca is seldom attacked by anything; it is interplanted with potatoes for it's ability to naturally repel bugs and nematodes.
Harvested 8-10 months after planting from seed.
Maca is native to the Junin plateau highlands of Peru and Bolivia. It has been grown there as a significant agricultural crop for millennia by the Inca, and modern native peoples of the land still consider it a sacred crop as their ancestors did. Maca has been harvested and used by humans in the Andean Mountains for centuries, where cultivation was common in what is now Peru and Bolivia. Historically, maca was often traded for lowland tropical food staples, such as corn, rice, maniot (tapioca), quinoa and jungle fruits. It was also used as a form of payment of Spanish imperial taxes. It is often cited by companies marketing maca that the root was eaten in quantity by Inca imperial warriors before battles. Their legendary strength was allegedly imparted by this copious consumption of maca. After a city was conquered, the women had to be protected from the Inca warriors, as they became ambitiously virile from eating such quantities of maca. Of course, this quite the appealing endorsement for the overtly masculine angle of maca's recent marketing campaign. Whether or not this oft repeated historical use is actually true has yet to be determined; those who have studied maca's history have not been able to locate formal mention of this particular use.
Maca is traditionally grown at altitudes of approximately 4,100-4,500 metres (13,000-15,000 ft) elevation. It grows quite well in cold climates with relatively poor agricultural soils where few other crops can be grown. Like many cruciferous root vegetables maca can exhaust soils that are not well tended. Nearly all maca cultivation in Peru is carried out organically, as there are few pests naturally occurring at such high altitudes, and maca itself is seldom attacked. Maca is sometimes interplanted with potatoes, as it is known to maca farmers that the plant itself naturally repels most root crop pests. Maca croplands are fertilized mainly with sheep and alpaca manure, and are often rested for a period of years to rebuild nutrients in the soils naturally. 8-10 months elapse between sowing and maturity for harvest. The yield for a cultivated hectare is approximately 5 tons. Maca is typically dried for further processing, which yields about 1.5 tons total. Although maca has been cultivated outside the Andes, it is not yet clear whether it develops the same active constituents or potency. Hypocotyls grown from Peruvian seeds form with difficulty at low elevations, in greenhouses or in warm climates. Seeds obtained from Bolivian maca, which is native to lower altitudes, are more easily grown under such conditions.
Roots (hypocotodyls) do not form readily under greenhouse conditions or at low elevations. They are often very small or non-existent, suggesting that maca is very acclimated to a specific environment. Naturally, maca varies greatly in the size and shape of the root, which can be triangular, flattened circular, spherical or rectangular, the latter of which forms the largest roots. Maca hypocotyls can be gold/cream, red, purple, black and green. All maca fields throughout Peru and Bolivia are a mixture of the different colors, which are sometimes sorted and separated after harvest and sold as unique "cultivars" although there is almost no difference between them genetically. Cream colored roots are the most widely grown and are favored in Peru for their enhanced sweetness and size. Black maca is considered the strongest in medicinal and energy-promoting properties, being both sweet and slightly bitter in taste. Red maca is also becoming popular with many people, and has also been studied specifically. These three ecotypes are the most commonly grown and exported, and their specific use is based on personal preferences of those who consume them.
Since maca was selected as a food crop, the differences between the ecotypes of maca are mainly in color, size and sweetness, there being about 13 distinct types in all. These differences are phenotypical - some of these differences are expressed as a response to altitude/region. Maca's genes are fairly identical across the entire species, and the medicinal effects are an incidental property which undoubtedly enhanced people's desire for it's continued cultivation.
Maca has many uses, with varying degrees of preliminary peer-reviewed support. Presently it is used for: Alleviating Menopausal Symptoms, Correcting Hormonal Imbalances, Increasing Libido, Increasing Energy, and Nutrition.
Preparation / Food:
In Peru, maca is typically used in baking and cooking. The powders now produced commercially and exported are often mixed into shakes. Less scrupulous marketers encapsulate the product, usually resulting in relatively tiny doses with no detectable therapeutic effect. The growing demand of the supplement industry has been one of the primary reasons for maca's expansion in farming and exporting. The prominent product is maca flour, which is ground from the hard, dried roots. In Peru, maca flour is used in cooking, porridge, and baking as a base and a flavoring. The supplement industry uses both the dry roots and maca flour for different types of processing and concentrated extracts. A quick internet query will show dozens of different extracts available, each touting some enhanced efficaciousness for a traditional use or health claim.
Another common form is maca which has undergone gelatinization. Starch gelatinization is an extrusion process, sometimes used for other roots and vegetables, which expands the starch molecules, breaks down some of the fiber in the roots using heat and water. Maca is one of many root vegetables which can be gelatinized to allow more efficient digestion. Gelatinized maca is employed for mainly for medicinal/supplement purposes, but can also be used like maca flour. There is also freeze-dried maca juice, which is a juice squeezed from the macerated fresh root, and subsequently freeze-dried.
Maca's and it's Products: Correcting Misconceptions
The science surrounding maca is not extensive. Many of the focused studies have been conducted on men, and only in small sample sizes, while maca remains even less formally researched in women and children. Even though maca has been profiled genetically and biochemically, in general the entire body of research regarding maca's biological activity in humans is preliminary. As with coffee, maca does contain perceptible components, the eater feels it doing something when they eat it. Reports about maca's beneficial effects and the enthusiasm surrounding the plant is a largely anecdotal phenomenon. The author suggests that people who wish to benefit from maca's interesting effects do so on the basis of education about what the plant is, it's proper / traditional uses, and make the choice based on a personal preference.
Obtaining information from entities who market the products may only confuse proper horticultural, culinary and genetic understanding of the plant. Due to prolific, enthusiastic marketing efforts there is much confusion around maca's appropriate use, and some incorrect or conflicting information. The most basic misconception involves the widespread ingestion of raw maca culinary flour (raw whole maca powder) as a supplement. This use, which is ubiquitous in health food and raw food circles here in the USA ignores the important culinary aspect of the plant 's ethnobotany. Maca flour (harina de maca) is a culinary flour in the Andes, and it has always been cooked. Understanding this identity is important. Natives of the central Andes do not regularly use raw maca, and in fact this use is sometimes considered harmful . This raw use has certainly caused stomach pain/indigestion for many people, turning them off towards a rather remarkable plant.
Confusing also is the proliferation of apparently particularized information about maca's varieties, constituents, and uses. Manufacturers and retailers have sought to create a mystique of proprietary maca science. The predominant concept that different types of maca are used in men vs. women is a recent invention, not part of maca's historical use. Andean peoples do not make such distinctions in medicinal effects. Historically maca was grown and selected primarily as a food crop , it's therapeutic benefits being incidental to it's importance as a food. There is no substantial difference between ecotypes, maca's many colors and shapes are nearly identical genetically and biochemically. All are being grown side-by-side on every maca plantation, and are sometimes sorted by color after harvest depending on the manufacturer. Diversity is itself an inherent characteristic of the species lepidium peruvianum . All cultivated maca in the Andes is of the species lepidium peruvianum, although the Latin name recognized by the USDA continues to be lepidium meyenii. They are the same species, referring to the same plant.
Maca is an ancient food, one with perceptible effects and some potential health benefits - it is best to begin with that understanding, and to seek sources of information within academic circles. Some sources are provided below.
1. Kilham, Chris (Professor of EthnoBotany at Umass Amherst) (2012, May 20). Public communication.
2. Taylor Leslie G (2005). The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs: A Guide to Understanding and Using Herbal Medicinals. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers. ISBN 0-7570-0144-0.
3. Kilham, Christopher (2002). Tales from the Medicine Trail: Tracking Down the Health Secrets of Shamans, Herbalists, Mystics, Yogis, and Other Healers. [Emmaus PA]: Rodale Press. ISBN 1-57954-185-2.
4. Valerio, L. G., Jr. and Gonzales, G. F. Toxicological aspects of the South American Herbs "Cat's Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)" and Maca (Lepidium meyenii) : A Critical Synopsis. Toxicol. Rev 2005;24 (1) :11-35
5. Bogani, P., Simonini, F., Iriti, M., Rossoni, M., Faoro, F., Poletti, A., and Visioli, F. Lepidium meyenii (Maca) does not exert direct androgenic activities. J Ethnopharmacol 4-6-2006;104(3):415-417.
6. Balick, M. J. and Lee, R. Maca: From Traditional Food Crop to Energy and Libido Stimulant. Altern. Ther. Health Med. 2002; 8(2):96-98.
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