The South American herb reportedly is a healer as well as a vegetable.
I actually purchased maca seeds by mistake. I’d run across references to another root crop called mashua when researching nasturtiums and thought its colorful tubers and pretty blooms looked intriguing.
By the time I noticed maca (Lepidium meynerii or peruviana) in a seed catalog, I only remembered that the common name of the tuberous nasturtium began with “m.” So I assumed maca to be that plant—though the fact that its genus name wasn’t Tropaeolum should have told me differently! It turns out that maca is plainer than mashua, but compensates for its lack of looks by being a so-called "superfood."
It should be, since it grows very high in the Andes where it has to be super tough to survive. As temperatures seldom climb above 60 degrees Fahrenheit there—and maca plants generally take at least seven or eight months to mature—they can be a bit tricky to grow in other climates.
This superfood probably will do best in humid coastal areas where temperatures never become either extremely hot or extremely cold. The plants can take light frosts lightly, but heavy freezes may kill back their tops.
Maca grows about 6 inches high and wide, and produces “bulbs” (actually hypocotyls) only 1 to 3 inches across. In the strain whose seeds I purchased, Lepidium peruviana ‘Junin,’ those bulbs can be a yellowish cream color, red, or purple. The smaller ones reportedly are most tasty with a flavor that the Cultivariable site describes as a mixture of radish and butterscotch. The foliage also is edible, and spicy like the cress to which it is related.
The plant prefers full sun and will grow in a wide variety of soils, but seems to do best in those with a close-to-neutral pH. Since maca doesn’t compete well with other flora, you’ll need to keep it well-weeded.
Supposedly one of those herbs which help your body adapt to stress, maca also has been called Peruvian ginseng, since it is reputed to raise energy levels. It reportedly also lowers cholesterol and blood sugar, improves memory and sexual function, and balances levels of estrogen in women—in addition to being high in protein as well as in a variety of antioxidants, glucosinolates, amino acids, vitamins, etc.
I can’t vouch for all of that, but—if even half of the hype is true—it proves you never should judge a plant by its appearance. For medicinal purposes, the bulb generally is dried and ground.
To sow the plants, barely cover the seeds with damp seed-starting mix and place them in a cool position with temperatures in the 60s. Mine germinated in five days, but they can take up to three weeks.
As with most vegetables raised for their roots, they ideally should be direct-seeded where you want them to grow and thinned out after they make an appearance. However, I figured that, in my zone, they would need a head start. So I’ll have to see how well they do—or don’t—transplant. And, if the herb continues to prosper in alternative medicine circles, we may have to come up with a new dance called maca reigneth!
Images: The banner image and foliage image are by Vahe Martirosyan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and this license. The other image is by Pierre-Olivier Cambelles, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and this license