The small South American plant known as Maca, or Peruvian Ginger, has been gaining a lot of attention recently. And not because of its spectacular foliage. Maca looks more like a turnip than anything else. Herbalists have lately come to recognize the medicinal properties of Peruvian Ginger, which include, among other things, increased libido and fertility.
Botanists have known about Maca, which they refer to as Lepidium meyenii, for at least 400 years. But its benefits for sexual health have only become well known in the last few decades. And as with any substance that purports to have aphrodisiacal effects, the plant now enjoys a titillating blend of notoriety and controversy.
In the following article we’ll spell out some of the basic characteristics of Maca, as well as the various medicinal benefits that have been attributed to it.
Native to the high Andes of Peru, at altitudes of more than 13,000 feet, Maca is an easy plant to overlook. Closely resembling the turnip and the radish, it has a bit of greenery above ground, but the heart of the matter lies beneath, in the bulbous root. But Maca is actually closer to kale, in terms of genetics. It belongs to the brassica family, along with broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.
Like onions and garlic, Maca is a biennial, requiring two years to reach maturity and be ready to harvest. Seeds are usually planted in early spring, like September. (Yep, it’s the Southern Hemisphere!) Greenery flourishes throughout summer and usually gets cut back in the fall, leaving the roots to go dormant over winter (i.e., July and August). The greens are left behind in the field or used to feed livestock.
In the second year, the vegetation comes back, this time producing seeds, while the roots continue to grow and ripen. Farmers will harvest strictly according to season, in mid to late summer, meaning January or February. Roots are gathered as are the prolific seeds. Seeds are the only means of propagating Maca, so they must be collected carefully.
Maca typically grows in some difficult to reach places where little or nothing else can be farmed. So most of the cultivation is done the old fashioned way, by hand. The crop is particularly demanding on the soil, and therefore requires pretty good fertilizer. In the Andes, that means a heavy application of readily available Alpaca poop. Sometimes farmers will rotate Maca with potatoes, another crop indigenous to these high mountains.
Up in these high altitudes, the plant is not susceptible to pests, and generally needs no herbicides or pesticides. Outside of the mountains, in non-native habitats, the Peruvian Ginger does not seem to perform well at all.
The substance of the Maca plant is in the root, which can be prepared in a few different ways for a number of purposes. Most often, the root is ground into a powder, but it is frequently available in capsule form and sometimes as a liquid extract.
The taste of Maca is somewhat bitter or earthy. But people don’t consume it for the flavor. You can add it to smoothies or anything more flavorful to help it go down easy.
The Maca root is made up primarily of carbohydrates. But it’s also loaded with minerals, including copper, iron and potassium, as well as vitamin C.
Many studies have shown Maca to be very effective as both a mood lifter and a performance enhancer. Maca can be taken to treat mild depression and anxiety. It’s said to be especially effective in improving the mental health of menopausal women.
Men are more likely to take Maca to improve athletic performance. Many claim that the plant can increase strength, energy and stamina.
Perhaps Maca’s most popular effect, and the reason for so much of the buzz surrounding this herbal supplement, is the increase in sex drive for both men and women. There is even some scientific data to support this claim. These results have led to some heavy marketing of Maca as a supplement and an alternative to the many prescription drugs currently on the market.
Many women are taking Maca to treat the numerous symptoms associated with menopause. Unfortunately, there is a real shortage of research in this area of women’s health, especially compared to the vast amounts of time and money spent on developing treatments for erectile dysfunction. But many women are turning to Maca to relieve hot flashes, sleep disorders and depression.
Limited scientific research suggests that Maca can improve fertility in men by increasing sperm count and sperm mobility. There’s also evidence to suggest that Maca can reduce swollen prostrate glands, another serious issue facing many older men.
Scientific research is pretty limited, and unlike some other herbs (e.g. Yarrow, Rose Hips, and St. John’s Wort), we don’t have several centuries of folk medicine to support the claims about Maca root. But early indications suggest that the plant can be very effective, especially for increasing sex drive. Maca’s potential to treat other issues like menopause and low fertility also look promising. Consult a naturopath to see if Maca might be right for you. Compared to prescription drugs, the possible side effects are pretty minimal, though its goitrogens could potentially affect the thyroid gland.
PHOTO CREDIT: David Vargas (Unsplash)