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Lepidium meyenii is a small herbaceous perennial plant related to cress, radish, and rapeseed in the mustard family Brassicaceae (Cruciferae).  It is commonly known by its Spanish name maca, or mace.  Native to a narrow range of the central Peruvian Andes, it was domesticated and cultivated by the Incans about 2000 years ago, widely used by colonists and pre-colonists of the region.  However, it was rarely represented in pottery or other early chronicles of cultured plants, nor in more modern ethnobotanical records, and is only recently rediscovered outside of its native area as a forgotten, neglected but potentially valuable nutritious food crop with potential health/medicinal benefits (NRC 1989).  It is one of few plants that grows in the Punas (barren sheep grazing lands) at altitudes between about 4000-4500 m (13,700 feet) above sea level, where temperatures are below freezing even during its peak growth (León 1964).  Historically it was often cultivated alongside the bitter potato because it produces chemicals that deter insect pests (Hernandez Bermejo and Leon 1994; National Research council 1989). 

The main portion of maca used as a food source is its sweet starchy root (the hypocotyl), which is rich in sugars, proteins and minerals and harvested as a staple.  There are several genetically distinct types of cultivated maca differentiated partly by root color, which ranges from white to yellow, red, purple, blue, black, green and grey, and the different colored roots are found to have different mineral components (Clement et al. 2010; Gonzales et al. 2005).  Roots eaten fresh, roasted or gelatinized, but also sun dried in which state they can be stored for years, and eaten ground or reconstituted.  In addition to the roots, maca leaves are eaten as salad greens as well as used as feed for livestock (including farmed guinea pigs). 

Recent chemical analyses have found that maca contains biologically active aromatic isothiocyanates with anti-cancer properties (Li et al. 2001).  Maca roots also have long been considered an aphrodisiac.  In the last 20 years research has investigated its potential fertility and energizing properties (e.g. Gonzales et al. 2003, 2005; Wikipedia 2013), and it has found a world-wide commercial market  in tablet and dry powder form.


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