Peruvian maca is a plant that grows high in the Andes mountain range in Peru. The plant is typically grown and nurtured for its medicinal properties and as a food. Also known by its Latin name, Lepidium meyenii, this hardy root has the distinction of being known for its purported libido-enhancing properties. It has also been called “Peruvian ginseng” because of this quality. In general, the Peruvian maca resembles a turnip or radish in size and appearance.
The maca root comes in a variety of colors and each is thought to be genetically different. Roots that are cream-colored are the sweetest tasting, whereas black roots have a more bitter taste. Clinical studies have shown that red Peruvian maca roots have the potential to actually shrink enlarged prostate glands in rats. Maca is also thought to boost energy and strength. Because of these properties, the Spanish colonialists actually used maca as a form of currency.
Elevations above 8,000 feet (about 2,400 meters) are considered ideal for growing the Peruvian maca plant. The root is unique in that it thrives in cold, high climates, where most other plants would quickly perish. This attribute is one of the reasons for its mythic reputation. The plant is cultivated without pesticides because there are very few bugs breeding at such high altitudes. In fact, many farmers and growers will plant maca near, or within other crops, because the maca appears to repel many of the crop-destroying insects.
Peruvian maca has been used in Peru as a food and medicine for well over 2,000 years. Even though the plant is grown in other regions, it is believed that these plants do not develop the same potent qualities and nutrients. The root is typically allowed to dry after picking, and once dried, the nutritional composition is similar to that of grains and wheat. It is high in a number of minerals such as potassium, copper, zinc, and amino acids, among many others. Legend has it that Inca warriors ingested maca prior to battle to enhance their stamina and fighting prowess.
This unique root is prepared and cooked in a variety of ways. It can be roasted as a delicacy, barbecued, or boiled in water and mashed, then mixed with milk to produce a kind of cereal, or porridge. Fermented maca will actually produce a beer that is mild in strength.