Another crop noone’s heard of – Maca

 

Maca, Lepidium meyeni, is not a vegetable I set out to grow. For some reason I stumbled across the cultivariable site (https://www.cultivariable.com) run by Bill Whitson (I think I was looking for information about mashua) and got over excited when I was looking at all the interesting things he grows, as you do….. Unfortunately, since he is based in the ‘States, I did not want to order any tubers from him (worried about importing the next ash die back disease), and most of his seed had run out (it was mid spring). I ordered maca, yacon and skirret seeds from him because that was about all that was left! Only one yacon has germinated by the start of August (it is not a good grower from seed – propagated too long from tubers). I had some nice skirret already growing – two plants from pointzfield nursery, and seeds from incredible vegetables. The reasoning for getting more skirret seed was that a bit of variety wouldn’t hurt if I was going to develop a Skye skirret strain. Bill appears to have a pretty similar climate to us. Wet and mild in summer, mild frosts and windy in winter, so I reasoned that anything he can grow, should also do well here. Unfortunately he is not selling online this year, for various reasons, although hopes to be back again next year.

maca seed packet
Maca seed packet (with sand added)

Anyway, maca grows at very high elevations in the Andes. It gets a lot of wind and can have mild frosts during the growing season. The maca develops a swollen root stem similar to a turnip or radish. It is in the brassica family and it’s lifecycle seems to be unclear.  PFAF describes it as a perennial, whereas cultivariable say it is technically an annual, but may take more than one growing season to set seed. On line discussions (http://www.growfruitandveg.co.uk/grapevine/vegging-out/growing-maca-peruvian-ginseng_2761.html) seem to indicate that a radish is most comparable for size and taste, although pfaf rates it highly as a food (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Lepidium+meyenii). This may be due to it’s nutritional content – high in carboyhdrate, protein and fibre as well as minerals. It is harvested at the end of the first season after about eight months (30 weeks), and some is semi dried for harvest and processing, whilst selected plants are grown on the following year to produce the seeds for another years crop. They self fertilise before the flowers open. Nothing much else will grow in those conditions, and the crop is sold and bartered for other produce from lower elevations. The maca is reputed to be a fertility booster amongst other things and apparently tastes of butterscotch. It may not like the milder, wetter, lower sun exposure of the UK, and/or have different taste and nutrition.  Simon Hickmott mentions it in his ‘growing unusual vegetables’ book although it didn’t strike me particularly before.
Anyway, the seed duly arrived, nicely labelled, at a reasonable carriage cost. I mixed them with damp sand and kept them in the fridge where they started germinating after just one week. I sowed them in a deep tray covering the seed with vermiculite, and left it in the fridge for another week, before moving it outside because the seedlings were a bit yellow (no light). I got a very good germination rate, so soon had to prick out the seedlings into pots. At this stage, because I have grown too many things from seed this year, I was a little short of small pots, so some seedlings were forced to share trays still.  I also planted lots of tiny seedlings out into the garden, however almost all of these were eaten quite quickly by slugs.

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In due course, I decided that some of the plants really needed to be planted out or potted on. I had already established through earlier losses that slugs are quite partial to the seedlings, so I planted them out with barrier protection as discussed in a previous post. The roots are very fine so I think there was a fair amount of damage to them when separating the plants in the tray.

maca roots
fine root structure
maca in tea garden
growing in tea garden with skirret and scorzonera

A nibble at the leaves confirms a hot radish flavour (cress like says pfaf). They are now growing fairly well. I.e. they haven’t all been eaten to the ground by the slugs (yet!). I should really pot on the remaining potbound seedlings again, since the information online does suggest they are quite hungry plants. As they were sown at the start of April, nominally 30 weeks takes us to the start of November. I’ll take a look at the survivors and post an update around then.

I’ve been having fun with these, although whether I’ll get an edible root remains to be seen.  In retrospect I wish I’d not sown all the seed at once, if I’d know I would get such good germination I would have saved some for later.  Bill Whitson does say that they can be sown in autumn, and they grow over winter.  Although I was reluctant to direct sow, it may be that once through the initial slug food stage (they seem to have lost interest in the plants a little now) the plants would do better without the root disturbance.  If the results seem palatable I may try and let some go to seed to try again (or get some more seed  from cultivariable when they are back up and running again).  They are quite decorative plants, but don’t seem in any danger of taking the gardening world by storm just yet!

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