is the root of a Peruvian plant - Lepidium meyenii - growing in
the Central Andean Region of Peru between 4000 and 4500 meters
of altitude, mainly in the Peruvian regions of:
"Junin" and "Cerro de Pasco". This species
is described in the catalogue of the flowering plants and
gymnosperms of Peru. Maca has traditionally been employed to
improve sexuality and fertility. Oral administration of Maca
significantly improved the sexual behaviour of male rats and
mice. More recently, it has been demonstrated that Maca improves
spermatogenesis in male rats.
Dry maca hypocotyls have the following composition: 59%
carbohydrates, 10.2% proteins, 8.5% fibre and 2.2% lipids among
a few other compounds (Dini et al. 1994).
Maca has a large amount of essential amino acids, vitamins
and high levels of iron and calcium.
In early times (1600 b.C), maca was appreciated not only
as a high nutritious food, but also as a gift of the gods along
with corn and potatoes. Mountain Raco in Junín was considered
the god of stewed food. In its honour, the natives buried
potatoes and maca there among other offerings. Maca also was
used in beverages with hallucinogenic products in dances and
religious ceremonies (Castro de León 1990). Today in local
markets it is advertised as an aphrodisiac, stamina-builder and
fertility-promoter. It is also often promoted as a cure for
rheumatism, respiratory ailments and as a laxative.
Botanical description and reproductive biology
The maca plant is a rosette of frilly leaves with an enlarged
fleshy underground organ formed by the taproot and the lower
part of the hypocotyls (Leon 1964; Tello et al. 1992).
These parts of the plant swell during growth, forming a
storage organ resembling a turnip. For simplicity, we will call
this organ ‘hypocotyls’, which is the economic product of
maca.. The foliage forms a mat, growing in close contact with
the ground. The leaves exhibit dimorphism, being larger in the
vegetative phase and reduced in the reproductive cycle (Tello et
al. 1992). The ‘hypocotyls’ display a variety of colours
from purple to cream and yellow (Leon 1964). This species is an
octoploid with 2n=8x=64 chromosomes (Quirós et al. 1996),
considering that the basic genomic number of Lepidieae is x=8.
Its meiosis is normal, with the chromosomes associating
predominantly as bivalents. This type of association indicates
that maca is a disomic polyploid. Polyploidy is a common event
among the species in the tribe Lepidieae to which maca belongs
(Darlington and Wylie 1945).
Most of the pollen collected from the flowers is fertile, as
measured by pollen stainability. Consistent with other
cruciferous species, pollen grains are trinucleated.
CROP: Maca is an Andean crop of narrow distribution.
It is restricted today to the suni and puna ecosystems (Bonnier
1986) of the Departments of Junín and Cerro de Pasco of Peru at elevations above 3500 m and often reaching 4450
m. in the central Andes of Peru (Leon 1964; Tello et al. 1992).
The largest cultivated area is found around Lake Junín at
Huayre, Carhuamayo, Uco, Ondores, Junín, Ninacana and Vicco.
Apparently maca occupied wider areas of cultivation in the past
(Johns 1981). In addition to Junín and Cerro de Pasco,
presumably, it also was grown in Cusco and in the Lake Titicaca
watershed. Some of the writers of the time mention that many
natives did not have any other food but maca. It was also used
as payment of taxes to the Spanish administrators (Castro de
Leon 1990). Its restricted cultivation today indicates that maca
may have been in danger of being phased out as a crop.
At the present time less than 50 ha are being dedicated to
the production of maca in Peru and presumably in the world (Tello
et al 1992). However, the popularity of this crop is steadily
increasing, not only in its area of production but also in large
cities because of its putative medicinal properties.