Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a largely unknown crop found at higher altitudes than perhaps any other crop in the world—for example, at altitudes up to 4,300 m in the northern Peruvian Puna near Lake Junín. Even most of the Indians of the Andes barely know this plant, which is so restricted in its distribution. Yet maca's enlarged tuberous roots are delicacies with a tangy taste and an aroma similar to butterscotch.
The area where maca (pronounced mah-kah) is grown is an environment of intense sunlight, violent winds, and bone-chilling cold. This area is among the world's worst farmland, especially in its upper limits, with vast stretches of barren, rocky terrain. Daily temperature fluctuations are so great that at sunset temperatures often plummet from a balmy 18°C to 10°C below freezing. Fierce winds evaporate more moisture than does the fierce sunlight, and carry away more soil than does the rain.
In this stark, inhospitable region, maca makes agriculture possible. Cultivated maca survives in areas where even bitter potatoes cannot grow (see page 99), and its wild ancestor grows even higher—just below the perpetual ice, on cold, desolate wastes where grazing sheep and llamas is the only possible land use, and the only other forage consists of coarse, sparse grasses lacking in nutritional quality.
Maca, a matlike perennial, is so small, flat, and inconspicuous that even visiting agronomists sometimes fail to realize they are standing in a farmer's field. Its tuberous roots resemble those of its relative the radish, and are yellow, purple, or yellow with purple bands. They are rich in sugars, starches, protein, and essential minerals—particularly iron and iodine.
To Andean Indians, maca is a valuable commodity. Dried, the roots can be stored for years. They are often exchanged with communities at lower elevations for staples such as rice, and they reach markets as far away as Lima. The sweet, spicy, dried root is considered a delicacy. Maca boiled in water is sweeter than cocoa. In Huancayo, Peru, maca pudding and maca jam are popular.
Maca is further valued because it reputedly enhances fertility in both humans and livestock. Whether this reputation has any validity