Maca, or Lepidium meyenii, is an herbaceous biennial plant from the Peruvian Andes and Bolivia. It is used as a root vegetable and medicinal herb. Used by the Andean people for more than 2,000 years, its rich history includes being used as a currency during the Incan empire due to its value for enhancing energy and libido. It is still sold in Peru today, and marketed for building strength, promoting stamina, improving sexual function, and enhancing fertility. Its fibre content also means it is used as a laxative.
Maca grows in a similar manner to the radish and turnip, to which it is related, except that it is grown at altitudes of 8,000-14,500 feet. Its size and proportions are similar, with green, fragrant tops that are short, and lie along the ground. Thin, fancy leaves grow in a rosette pattern near the surface of the soil, continuously renewing from the centre, as the outer ones die off. Self-fertilised, off-white flowers bear small fruits, each containing seeds. This is how the plant reproduces, germinating usually within a week. As with most root vegetables, there are variations to the size and shape of the maca root. It can be triangular, flattened, circular, rectangular, inverted-pear shaped, etc.
Colour varies as well, with each considered a genetically unique variety. Specific phenotypes, pertaining mainly to root colour include: gold or cream (the most popular); red – showing promise in recent studies for reducing prostate size; purple, black – considered the strongest for energy and stamina promotion; blue, and green. In the last few years, the different colours have been studied to ascertain differences in nutritional and therapeutic properties.
Maca only grows well in cold climate and high elevations, and in relatively poor soil where few other crops thrive. Like cruciferous root vegetables however, maca can exhaust soil nutrients if not tended and rotated. Most maca is grown organically due to few pests thriving in the conditions maca prefers. In fact, it is often used as a companion plant to repel pests from other plants as maca is rarely attacked.
Historical uses of maca
Historically, Peruvian herbal medicine used maca for anaemia, memory enhancement, menstrual disorders, menopausal symptoms, mental clarity, stomach cancer, stress reduction, and tuberculosis as well as to increase energy, stamina, strength, and endurance. It is an immunostimulant, taken to improve overall health.
Highly nutritious, maca has been an important, traditional food and medicinal plant for centuries. It was often traded for lowland tropical food staples, such as corn, rice, quinnoa, and papaya. Eaten by Inca imperial warriors before going into battle, their legendary strength has been attributed to eating copious amounts of maca. Legend has it that after a city was conquered, the women had to be protected due to the increased libido and ‘ambitious virility’ caused the maca.
When the Incas controlled the high Andes region 3,000 years ago, maca was an important part of their commerce. It was so potent that it was considered very valuable, and its use was restricted, mainly to royalty.
It was not until the 1960s that maca started to become known by the rest of the world, as botanists in Peru came across it, analysed it for nutrition, and designated it as one of the ‘lost crops of the Andes.’
Modern uses of maca
Sometimes called ‘Peruvian ginseng’ despite not being a relative of the ginseng family, Peruvians use maca today much as they always have – to increase strength and stamina, and to improve sexual function and fertility. Eaten up to three times per day sometimes, it is used by professional athletes and the elderly, as well as those recovering from addictions, depression, disease, or traumas.
Traditionally, maca is cooked; as the freshly harvested root is available only in close proximity to growers and raw maca can cause gastric upset due to its thick fibre and goitrogen content. Cooked in a variety of ways, sometimes it is roasted as a delicacy, but usually it is boiled or mashed to produce a sweet, thick liquid. It is also dried and mixed with milk, porridge, other vegetables, or grains to produce a flour used for baking. It is even fermented and made into a weak beer, and the leaves can be cooked, or eaten raw in salads.
Consumed as a food for livestock as well as people, maca is considered as safe to eat as any other vegetable. It does contain glucosinolates that can increase chance of goiters, if a lot is eaten in combination with a diet low in iodine. The darker coloured roots (red, purple, black) contain iodine, making it a better choice for those planning on using a lot of maca. Ongoing studies on maca include its effects on reducing enlarged prostate glands, improving mood and energy, decreasing anxiety, improving sexual desire, and as a natural fertility treatment, including improvement of sperm production, sperm motility, and semen volume.