A perennial related to mustard, maca grows at very high elevations — to 15,000 feet — in the Andes Mountains. It withstands conditions that many other species cannot — freezing temperatures; intense sunlight; high winds; and poor, rocky soil. Maca grows low to the ground. Its flattened taproot — the part used as food and medicine by Andean farmers in Peru and Bolivia — is about the size of a radish.
In ancient times, this traditional crop was traded for cassava, rice, quinoa, and other tropical crops grown by lowland-dwelling peoples. It’s said that when the Spanish came to the high Andes, their horses suffered from the elevation, but after foraging on maca they recovered and became energetic.
Common Name: Maca
Description: Rosette of leaves forms a mat against the ground; cream, purple, or yellow tuberous taproot up to 3 inches across; flowers in racemes
Hardiness: To Zone 5 (but often cultivated as an annual or biennial)
Flowering: Summer of the second season or sooner, if taproots are used for propagation
Parts Used: Root
Range/Habitat: Native to high elevations of the Andes Mountains
Maca is an excellent source of carbohydrate (60 to 75 percent), protein (11 to 14 percent), and fiber (8.5 percent). In its native growing regions, the taproot is roasted in a pit oven and eaten as a cooked vegetable, boiled and mashed into porridge, or made into a type of flour. The delicious porridge includes sugar and milk and has been said to taste similar to butterscotch. A beer known as Kuka is also made from maca by the Andean Brewing Company.
Maca is traditionally known as a food that increases stamina and energy, as well as fertility, virility, and libido. Studies of animals as well as humans seem to confirm these traditional beliefs. Herbalists use maca to treat male impotence and erectile dysfunction, as well as menstrual disorders, menopausal symptoms, hot flashes, and fatigue.
Caution: Not enough is known about possible problems associated with maca use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so avoid using it under these circumstances.
How to grow it
Maca thrives in well-drained, alkaline soil, cool temperatures, and full sun. Little is known about growing this high-altitude mountain plant in North America, but it is believed to do best as a winter crop planted in early fall. Sow the seeds directly in your garden (try a cold frame or cool greenhouse in Zone 6 and colder), covering them lightly with soil. Harvest the roots the following spring. Propagate by seed.