Maca (Lepidium Meyenii), also known as pepperweed and Peruvian Ginseng, is a native plant of the Andes Mountains, where it has held a place of cultural significance for thousands of years. It is a herbaceous biennial plant of the crucifer family. This family of plants contains over 3700 species that can be found the world over.
Maca can be found growing 3,800 - 4,800m above sea level, within a narrow, high altitude zone of the Andes Mountains. It is its extreme frost tolerance that allows it to thrive in such a harsh environment.
The growth habits, size and proportions of maca have been described as akin to that of a turnip. The main growth of the plant happens underground, where its prized roots develop. Above ground, maca develops a plethora of thin, shoot like leaves that crawl along the ground. These leaves can grow up to about 20cm long, developing in a rosette, with the outside leaves being replaced as they die by new leaves from the center.
Due to the harsh location of its native growth, maca often relies on self pollination to reproduce. Its central raceme produces a few off white flowers which eventually turn into fruit, containing 2 seeds each. Due to the short photoperiod it is exposed to in the Andes, the entire life cycle of maca can take a longer time to complete. However, under optimal conditions maca can complete its life cycle within a year, leading some to consider or believe it should be classed as an annual plant.
It is the root that is harvested for its active properties. This root tends to be triangular in shape, but can vary largely plant to plant. It can also come in a variety of colours, including gold, cream, green, black, red or purple. These colours are due to varying phenotypes and are a good indication of the effects in can have on the human body. For example, cream maca roots, which are very popular in Peru, are though to be much sweeter and grow larger; whereas darker, black maca roots are thought to be best for increasing stamina and energy, but taste quite bitter. Red maca is beginning to increase in popularity as it has been clinically shown to reduce the size of the prostate in rats.
The benefits of maca can be gained from eating both fresh and dried root, but dried is more common as it allows for easy storage and distribution to the wider world market.
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