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Page 57 Maca Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a largely unknown crop found at higher altitudes than perhaps any other crop in the world—for example, at altitudes up to 4,300 m in the northern Peruvian Puna near Lake Junín. Even most of the Indians of the Andes barely know this plant, which is so restricted in its distribution. Yet maca's enlarged tuberous roots are delicacies with a tangy taste and an aroma similar to butterscotch. The area where maca (pronounced mah-kah) is grown is an environment of intense sunlight, violent winds, and bone-chilling cold. This area is among the world's worst farmland, especially in its upper limits, with vast stretches of barren, rocky terrain. Daily temperature fluctuations are so great that at sunset temperatures often plummet from a balmy 18°C to 10°C below freezing. Fierce winds evaporate more moisture than does the fierce sunlight, and carry away more soil than does the rain. In this stark, inhospitable region, maca makes agriculture possible. Cultivated maca survives in areas where even bitter potatoes cannot grow (see page 99), and its wild ancestor grows even higher—just below the perpetual ice, on cold, desolate wastes where grazing sheep and llamas is the only possible land use, and the only other forage consists of coarse, sparse grasses lacking in nutritional quality. Maca, a matlike perennial, is so small, flat, and inconspicuous that even visiting agronomists sometimes fail to realize they are standing in a farmer's field. Its tuberous roots resemble those of its relative the radish, and are yellow, purple, or yellow with purple bands. They are rich in sugars, starches, protein, and essential minerals—particularly iron and iodine. To Andean Indians, maca is a valuable commodity. Dried, the roots can be stored for years. They are often exchanged with communities at lower elevations for staples such as rice, and they reach markets as far away as Lima. The sweet, spicy, dried root is considered a delicacy. Maca boiled in water is sweeter than cocoa. In Huancayo, Peru, maca pudding and maca jam are popular. Maca is further valued because it reputedly enhances fertility in both humans and livestock. Whether this reputation has any validity
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Page 58 is uncertain. However, soon after the Conquest, the Spanish found that their livestock were reproducing poorly in the highlands, and the Indians recommended maca. The results were so remarkable that they were noted by surprised Spanish chroniclers. Colonial records of some 200 years ago indicate that tribute payments of roughly 9 tons of maca were demanded from the Junín area alone. Even if such medicinal effects prove invalid, the fact remains that where little else will grow, maca provides nutritious food that stores well. But for all its qualities, maca is in trouble. Its cultivation is declining. Once it was probably grown from Ecuador to northern Argentina, and hundreds of hectares of terraces apparently were devoted to its cultivation; now it is restricted to a few tiny scattered fields, and it is fast dwindling toward agricultural oblivion. Indeed, in 1982 maca was declared to be in danger of extinction as a domesticated plant. 1 One reason for the decline is that maca is complicated to grow (see later). However, the main reason is neglect. This “poor person's crop” has been given little research or administrative support (even its growth cycle, flower biology, and chromosome number are not known). As a result, it is being displaced by foods imported into the region. To barter for these foods (mostly rice, noodles, sugar, and some canned goods), the local populations increasingly rely on raising sheep and llamas, as well as on using lower altitude fields, where corn can be grown. But perhaps this Inca crop will not be lost. Scientists and governments are finally turning their attention to its merits. Its seeds—representing centuries of cumulative selections by farmers—are for the first time being collected, grown out, tested, and saved. This attention is important, for maca shows potential for benefiting areas at extreme elevations both inside and outside the Andean zone. Its ability to thrive at unusually high altitudes means that large areas previously considered inhospitable to agriculture could be turned to productive use. PROSPECTS Andean Region. More attention to maca will almost certainly generate bigger markets and provide more income for the high puna, perhaps the most economically deprived part of the region, a place where few other crops can survive. It could be a nutritional complement to a diet weak in vegetables (other than potatoes) and probably lacking in vitamins and minerals, especially iodine. Moreover, the roots store 1 International Board for the Protection of Genetic Resources (IBPGR), 1982.
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Page 59 ~ enlarge ~ Maca root. (S. King) and transport well, and markets could expand throughout the Andean countries. Other Developing Areas. Maca's future outside the Andes is unclear because the plant is currently so little known. Only research and trials will tell if it could represent a new contribution to the diets of people living in mountainous areas worldwide. Other than preliminary trials, this crop warrants no vigorous research attention outside the Andes at this point, although there are many areas (for example, the high Himalayas) where edible tubers are few and where it could be tested. Industrialized Regions. Unlike most of the crops in this report, maca does not seem to have a major future in North America, Europe, or Australasia. However, it is worth some basic research, which might change the outlook. There is already interest in the United States in its reputed effects on human fertility. 2 2 Preliminary analyses have shown that it contains glucosinolates. Information from T. Johns.
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Page 60 USES The fresh roots, which are considered a treat, are baked or roasted in ashes. The dried roots are mainly boiled in milk or water to create a savory, fragrant porridge. It also make a popular sweet, fragrant, fermented drink (maca chicha) that is often mixed with hard liquor to make “coctel de maca.” It is the dried roots that are most used. After sun-drying, they become brown, soft, and sweet, with a musky flavor. It is reported that the flavor remains strong for two years, and often for much longer. No part of the plant is wasted. Even the leaves reportedly are eaten. (The plant is a close relative of cress, the European green whose pungent leaves are eaten in salads.) Maca is also a choice Andean feed for fattening guinea pigs for the table. NUTRITION In some areas of the Puna, maca is important in the diet. It has one of the highest nutritional values of any food crop grown there. The dried roots are approximately 13–16 percent protein, and are rich in essential amino acids. The fresh roots contain unusually high amounts of iron and iodine, two nutrients that are often deficient in the highland diet. In addition to its nutritious ingredients, some antinutritional factors—alkaloids, tannins, and small quantities of saponins—have been reported. During storage, the nutritional value stays high. Seven-year-old roots still retain a high level of calories as well as 9–10 percent protein. 3 AGRONOMY Maca husbandry is difficult, and the cropping system used to grow it is complex. To obtain seed, the strongest plants are left in the ground at harvest time. About a month later, when hard freezes have killed the tops of the plants, they are transplanted (with all their secondary roots) to special plots in unused sheep corrals or manure piles. There they are covered with soil and heavily manured. Within a few weeks, new shoots appear. In a month or two, numerous flowers rise, and 3–4 months later, seed is set. The seeds are allowed 3 Information from S. King.
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Page 61 ~ enlarge ~ Maca field near Lake Junín, Peru. Above ground the plant is all but invisible. The compact, low-growing habit protects the plant from the harsh growing conditions at high elevations. (S. King) to mature and fall to the ground. The mixture of seeds, plant debris, and loose soil is used to replant the crop. Seeds remain viable 3–4 years. Maca is usually planted in small plots, often surrounded by stone fences or earth ridges that protect the plants from desiccating wind and ground-creeping frosts. The tiny seeds, still mixed with plant debris and fine earth, are scattered on carefully worked soil. Sheep are then released to press the mixture into the ground as they walk around. Birds are especially fond of maca seeds, and people often watch over the newly planted fields to scare them away. The seedlings are not usually thinned, and little further care is given. Weeds are no problem because little else can grow in the Puna, but as protection from the frequent frosts and snows, maca plants are sometimes covered with straw. The roots are harvested 6–7 months after planting. However, in the harshest parts of the Puna, they may require up to 9 months to mature. The plants are dug, the leaves removed, and the roots cleaned and left to dry in the sun. Except for the seed stock, all the roots are harvested, even the small ones. Indeed, the smallest are preferred, as they are less fibrous.
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Page 62 Maca is usually grown in very small fields, where its yields average less than 3 tons per hectare. With use of improved agronomic techniques, however, yields equivalent to more than 20 tons per hectare have been achieved, even in nonirrigated plots. 4 LIMITATIONS As noted, domesticated maca is in danger of extinction. Its cultivation and use is little known outside of the Lake Junín area, where only scattered plantings remain. The current methods of horticulture are complex and labor intensive. Maca is considered a crop that exhausts the soil, and after it is harvested, the plots are left fallow for about 10 years to replenish themselves. Because land is plentiful, this is not a problem in the Puna. The Puna is unusual in that the sunlight is extremely intense, whereas the temperatures are extremely low—a strange combination caused by its high altitude and proximity to the equator. Maca may be peculiarly adapted to this strange climate. If so, it may be difficult to cultivate outside equatorial highlands. The dried roots are shriveled and brown and are not visually attractive. RESEARCH NEEDS The extent of maca cultivation in the Lake Junín and Huancayo regions should be investigated. Here the crop faces grave genetic erosion. Therefore, germplasm should be collected, broadly disseminated to germplasm banks, and cultivated in protected locations. The plant's nutritional requirements should be determined, especially emphasizing tests to assess its reputation for soil depletion. A more likely cause is that Puna soils are poor to begin with, and that little fertilizer is used. The problem might also be due to allelopathy (the release of growth-regulating chemicals) because other Lepidium species appear to be strongly allelopathic. 5 Other research needs include the following: Characterizing maca's reproductive biology; Refining and simplifying maca's agronomy; 4 Information from C. Mantari C. 5 Information from E. Rice. See, also, Bieber and Hoveland, 1968. Phytotoxicity of plant materials on seed germination of crownvetch, Coronilla varia L. Agronomy Journal 60:185–188.
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Page 63 THE PUNA ~ enlarge ~ In referring to maca, the 16th-century chronicler Padre Cobo said: “this plant is born in the roughest and coldest of the sierra where no other plant, cultivated as food, grows.” Indeed, the Puna region of southern Peru, which is maca's native habitat, has an intensely cold climate that makes it all but impossible to cultivate other leafy plants. The fact that such an area was made habitable and self-sustaining is a demonstration of the Incas' agricultural skills, as well as of the potential to be found in maca. The Puna is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. A treeless ecological zone between 3,800 and 4,800 m elevation, it is characterized by steppes, uncultivated fields, tundra, and barren alpine and subalpine plains. Its average temperature fluctuates between 5° and 10°C. At any hour of the day, but especially in the afternoons, strong winds blow. The most feared is the “phuku,” a wind that, according to local lore, can lift a horseman off his mount and throw him to the ground. In general terms, the landscape is extremely wild and captivating. Because of the luminosity at this high altitude, the mountain peaks are said to seem to be right at one's fingertips. There are few flat areas, and those are very small. Most of the region is undulating terrain, with rough slopes and freezing rocky areas. There are large stretches, barren of all vegetation and soil, with rocks already exposed on the surface.
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Page 64 Identifying the variation of forms and collecting superior varieties; Analyzing the nutritional content and antinutritional factors; Investigating the reputed fertility enhancement, probably the primary economic value of maca at this stage; 6 and Testing maca outside the Puna to determine how the plant will perform under more benign conditions. SPECIES INFORMATION Botanical Name Lepidium meyenii Walpers Family Cruciferae (mustard family) 7 Common Names Quechua and Spanish: maca, maka, maca-maca, maino, ayak chichira, ayak willku English: maca, Peruvian ginseng Origins. Maca is a true Puna plant. It was widely grown during the pre-Columbian period. In Junín there are hundreds of square kilometers of ancient terraces that probably were used to cultivate it. Although it does not appear to be represented in the ancient Peruvian pottery, primitive cultivars have been found in archaeological sites dating as far back as 1600 B.C. 8 Description. The plant has 12–20 entire and scalloped leaves that lie close to the ground. This rosette is roughly circular, and is formed from the flat and fleshy central axis. As the outer leaves die, there is a continuous formation of new leaves from the center of the rosette. The off-white, self-fertile flowers arise from a central stalk and are typical of the mustard family. The ovoid seeds are about 2 mm long. The edible part is derived from the tuberous hypocotyl, that portion of the plant where the root joins the stem. These enlarged “roots” resemble inverted pears both in size (up to 8 cm in diameter) and shape. They end in thick, strong roots with numerous lateral rootlets, as in a radish. The flesh is pearly white and has a marbled appearance. 6 In native Andean medicine, the potency of both maca and mashua (see next chapter) is traditionally judged by a particular odor yielded by the chemical p-methoxybenzyl glucosinolate, which both plants share. Johns, 1981. 7 Cruciferae includes some of the most widely grown vegetable crops: radish, turnip, cabbage, mustard, and rape, for instance. Maca is the only Lepidium species whose roots are used as a food, but the leaves of other species are used as greens, especially the common cress, Lepidium sativum, which occurs naturally from Europe to the Sudan and to the Himalayas, and has been cultivated since ancient times as a green vegetable. 8 Information from D. Pearsall.
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Page 65 It consists of two fairly well-defined parts: an outer region and a central cylinder. The outer section is creamy and rich in sugars; the inner section is firmer and particularly rich in starches. Horticultural Varieties. There are four traditionally recognized types, all based on the color of the root: cream-yellow, yellow banded with a purple waist, purple, and black. The yellow ones are generally the most popular. Small collections have been made. 9 In Peru, INIAA (Huancayo) and Universidad San Cristobal of Huamanga (Ayacucho) are each caring for a few accessions (four varieties are maintained at Ayacucho). Environmental Requirements Daylength. Unknown Rainfall. In the area near Junín, rainfall is seasonal, averaging 720 mm annually. Altitude. 3,500–4,500 m, with most cultivation between 3,900 and 4,100 m. Low Temperature. Frosts are common throughout the growing season. Resistance to night frosts of −10°C have been reported, although the plant is normally mulched to protect it from extreme cold (night temperatures of −20°C are not uncommon just before or after the harvest). High Temperature. Unknown, but in the Puna temperatures usually reach 18°C (occasionally 22°C or higher). Soil Type. The limits are unknown. Puna soils are often clayey; Junín is a limestone area. 9 By the International Board for the Protection of Genetic Resources (IBPGR).
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