Maca: planting, effects & uses
Maca is commonly referred to as a superfood in powder form, but hobby gardeners also grow this cruciferous root vegetable in their gardens. Find out all about the characteristics of the maca plant, as well as how to grow and harvest maca.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii, syn. Lepidium peruvianum) is fairly uncommon in our vegetable patches but rather easy to grow. The entire maca plant has a peppery, cress-like flavour and can thrive in your garden with the proper care. Read on to discover what a maca plant looks like, how to grow maca at home and the health benefits of maca.
Maca: origin and properties
The maca plant, also known as Peruvian ginseng, is native to the high Andes mountain ranges of Peru and Bolivia, where it grows at altitudes above 4000 m. locals of this extreme habitat have been eating it as a vegetable for thousands of years. Maca is a type of cruciferous vegetable (Brassicaceae) and a rather unknown cress species that is closely related to garden cress (Lepidium sativum).
The maca plant is an annual or biennial and is hardy down to -10 °C. The plants, which grow to be 15 – 30 cm tall, begin with a leaf rosette of several finely pinnate leaves on fleshy stems. In summer, walnut-sized, heart-shaped to flat-round roots with a diameter of 3 – 5 cm form underground. They have white, sweet-tasting flesh and skin that can be white, yellow, red, purple or grey to black.
The flowers usually appear in the second year between May and July, and occasionally in the first year if it is too hot. The flower panicles grow from the centre of the leaf rosette but also later appear on lateral shoots. The tiny flowers have four creamy white petals and self-pollinate. The pollinated flowers develop into small seeds pods, containing two egg-shaped, flat grey to red-brown seeds.
How to grow maca
The maca plant is one of the hardiest vegetable plants around. In its native habitat, it is subjected to strong UV exposure, high winds and extreme temperature fluctuations. As a result, it usually grows without any problems in our climate, as long as the temperature does not stay too high for too long. Maca grows best in sunny to semi-shady spots with moist, humus and nutrient-rich soil, although it can thrive in poor soil. Wind-exposed, cooler locations are best. It can be grown in a balcony box, a raised bed or in the vegetable patch. A nutrient-rich, peat-free potting soil with good water retention such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost is ideal for growing maca.
- Perfect for all your house, garden & balcony plants
- For strong & healthy plants as well as an active soil life
- Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition
Sow maca seeds in May after the last frost. The small maca roots with their sweet and pungent flavour will grow into the autumn. Like its relative garden cress, maca seeds are very easy to care for and germinate quickly. Plants sown directly in the bed develop much better than pre-sown and transplanted maca, so it is best to sow directly in your chosen location. From mid-May onwards, sow the seeds in rows with a row spacing of 30 – 40 cm. Cover with a thin layer of soil about 0.5 cm thick and lightly press down. Water carefully but thoroughly. At a temperature of 15 °C, the first seedlings will sprout in a few days to two weeks. Keep the seeds moist until they germinate so that strong stems form.
How to care for maca plants
After the maca seeds have sprouted, thin out the plants if they are too dense. Leave 8 – 10 cm space between each maca plant. Regular watering is the most important measure of maca plant care. Mulch around the plants with a layer of grass cuttings to retain moisture in the soil for longer and at the same time stimulate soil life. Regularly pull out weeds to ensure the maca plants can grow healthily. It is also worthwhile to hoe between the rows.
Maca usually manages without fertiliser as it is a light feeder. The root quality and nutritional components can even suffer if the nutrient supply is too high. When sowing in very poor soils, work in a little slow-release fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. The fertiliser granules will slowly decompose over several weeks, delivering nutrients to the roots in portioned mild doses.
- Perfect for a variety of plants in the garden & on the balcony
- Promotes healthy plant growth & an active soil life
- Long-lasting fertiliser that is free from animal products - child & pet friendly
As with other brassicas, flea beetles (Psylliodes) can cause damage to the leaves. The best strategy here is prevention by means of mixed cultivation, fine-mesh netting as well as good water and weed management.
To save seeds, leave some plants in the ground for the coming year instead of harvesting them. Good winter protection is necessary in most locations to overwinter maca. Although it can withstand sub-zero temperatures, it can die when temperatures are below -15 °C for a long time. The best option is to dig up the roots and plant them in an unheated but protected greenhouse. Alternatively, cut back the leaves and cover the plants with a layer of leaves, coniferous branches or fleece. Flowers and seeds will then form in the coming year. Seeds from plants that flowered in their first year can also be collected. Store in a cool, dry and dark place and they will germinate well for several years.
Harvesting, effects and use of maca
Maca is harvested from late summer into autumn as soon as the roots have a diameter of about 3 cm. Harvest maca roots as needed. Like radishes (Raphanus sativus), grab the roots by the leaves to pull them out of the soil. In loamy, heavy soils, you can also use a hand shovel. Remove the soil from the maca roots with a gentle vegetable brush. Stored in the fridge without leaves, the sweet root will keep fresh for about two weeks.
The fresh sweet roots can be eaten raw, baked or fried as well as dried. Dried maca root is considered nutritious, rich in protein and aids digestion thanks to its fibre content. It is also rich in potassium, calcium and other minerals and amino acids. Dried maca root stores well for years and can be used later to make a sweet porridge. In addition to the small roots, maca leaves can also be eaten. Maca leaves taste spicy and are often used in salads or pesto.
Maca root benefits
Maca root powder is noted for being invigorating, strengthening and slightly bitter tasting. The effect of maca has been compared to that of ginseng (Panax ginseng). It is said to improve performance and memory while also making it easier to cope with stressful situations. Traditionally, maca is used as an aphrodisiac and to increase fertility in men and women. The effects of black and red maca powder differ: while black maca is very beneficial for memory, fatigue and fertility issues, red maca can help benign prostatic hyperplasia and osteoporosis. Like all brassicas, maca contains mustard oils that have an antimicrobial effect. Like green and black tea, maca also contains antioxidants that protect cells against free radicals. Maca tea, baked goods made with maca as well as pure maca powder capsules are not only energizing but also have many other positive effects on the body.
Another Andean vegetable is yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius). This vegetable is grown in South America for its crisp, sweet-tasting, tuberous roots. Find out how to grow them at home!