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Species Classification

Cruciferae (Brassicaceae) family contains many important crop plants and comprises approximately 3,000 species. According to Rehm and Espig (1991), crops of economic importance are:
  • Starch Plant - Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
  • Oilseeds - Rapeseed (Brassica napus) and Crambe (Crambe abyssinica)
  • Vegetables - Cauliflower, Common Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, etc. (Brassica olevacea var. botrytis, var. capitata, var. gemmifera); Chinese Cabbage (B. rapa subsp.chinensis); Garden Rocket (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa); Watercress (Nasturtium officinale); Radish (Raphanus sativus); Garden Cress (Lepidium sativum)
  • Spices - Mustard (Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea and Sinapis alpa)
  • Fodder - Fodder Kale (Brassica spp.), Fodder Radish (Raphanus sativus).
  • The species in the Brassicaceae are classified in three large cosmopolitan sections— Dileptium, Monoploca and Lepidium — and three minor sections restricted to the Old World — Lepia, Lepiocardamon, Cardamon (Thellung 1906; Mummenhoff et al. 1995).
The genus Lepidum belongs to tribe Lepidieae and section Monoploca of the Brassicaceae family (Thellung 1906) and consists of approximately 175 species (Mummenhoff et al. 1992) being the largest genus in the Brassicaceae (Hewson 1982).

Maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp. in Nov. Act. Nat. Leopold. Carol. 19, Suppl. 1 (1843) 249) is the only species cultivated as a starch crop. In the genus, three other species are cultivated (Hanelt 1986; Mabberley 1993):
  • The garden cress or land cress (Lepidium sativum L.) is grown worldwide and is used at the cotyledon or seedling stage as a salad component.
  • Dittander (L. latifolium L.) was a cultivated salad plant of the Ancient Greeks and is used as a medicinal plant in the Canary Islands to alleviate renal lithiasis. According to studies of Navarro et al. (1994), this species has diuretic action.
  • Poor man's-pepper (L. virginicum L.) is used as a leafy vegetable (weed in maize) by the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico .
The Andean cultivated species of Lepidium, has been questioned by Chacón (1990), who proposed to change its name L. meyenii Walp. to L. peruvianum Chacón sp. nov., based on morphological observations and comparative analysis of herbarium specimens in Germany and the USA .

Additionally, the original collections of L. meyenii were done outside the present range of distribution of maca, namely Puno in Peru . Although it is believed that in Inca times maca was cultivated in Puno, there is no evidence of this crop being cultivated there at the present time (M. Holle, pers. comm.). Later, other accessions collected in Bolivia and Argentina were also classified as L. meyenii. After superficial morphological inspection, however, no resemblance to maca can be seen in these early herbarium specimens, which in many cases are not in optimal shape. Therefore the species name change seems justifiable, although further taxonomic research is required to solve this problem.

At least seven wild species of Lepidium, including the cultivated one, have been reported in Peru by Brako and Zarucchi 993) from the departments of Ancash to Puno. Other Andean species have been collected in Ecuador , Bolivia and Argentina (M. Hermann, pers. comm.). Practically nothing is known about the origin of these species and even less about their possible relationship to maca.

Although maca is an octoploid, the Andean wild species of Lepidium surveyed so far include both tetraploid and octoploids (Quiros et al. unpublished). A survey of approximately 30 different cultivars of maca and 21 wild species from Ecuador , Peru and Bolivia , with Randomly Amplified Polymorphic DNA (RAPD) and Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP) markers for rDNA, cruciferins, napins and a self-incompatibility sequence (Kianian and Quiros 1991), disclosed very low polymorphism among cultivars. Phylogenetic distances calculated on the basis of 75 RAPD markers indicate that none of the wild species so far screened is closely related to maca (Quiros et al., unpublished).

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