The Wonders of Corn

UNTIL recent years Harlin was a corn farmer in the Finger Lakes region of New York, in the United States. He always took delight in explaining to friends and visitors some of the wonders of corn, also called maize. Awake! invited Harlin to share some of his knowledge with our readers. We will also look at other aspects of this amazing plant. Where, for example, did corn originate? How did it spread around the world? And what uses does this plant have? Let us now consider Harlin’s description of some of the wonders of corn.

The Plant “Talks” to You

“To me, corn is a work of both art and brilliant mathematics. From the leaves to the individual kernels on the cob, everything is arranged in an aesthetically pleasing and precise pattern. What is more, as the plant grows, it ‘talks’ to you. It tells you if it’s thirsty or malnourished. A human baby cries when it needs something. A growing corn plant, like many other plants, gives visual signals, such as leaf color and shape, to convey its needs. The secret is to understand those signs.

 “Leaves with a reddish-purple color may indicate a lack of phosphate. Other symptoms may indicate a lack of magnesium, nitrogen, or potash. A farmer can also tell by sight if his corn has a disease or has been harmed by chemicals.

“Like all corn growers, I planted in the spring, as the warmth of the soil allows the seed to germinate. When my crop was fully grown after four to six months, it stood about six feet [2 m] tall.

“A corn plant grows in stages that can be determined by counting its leaves. When it is at the five-leaf stage, its chemical and “mathematical” powers really come to the fore. First, the roots make a comprehensive soil analysis. The information gained forms the basis for a program of growth that determines optimum ear girth, measured by the number of kernel rows. Then, between the 12- and 17-leaf stage, further soil analysis aids the plant to ascertain the optimum number of kernels it will grow along the cob. In short, each plant somehow calculates how to get the best possible results from the soil. Further evidence of amazing design lies in the intricacies of corn reproduction.”

Tassels, Anthers, and Silks

“Each corn plant has both male and female characteristics. The spindly growth protruding from the top of the plant is the male part, the tassel. Each tassel has about 6,000 flowering buds, or anthers. These release millions of grains of pollen per plant. Carried by the wind, the pollen fertilizes the ova, or eggs, inside the undeveloped ears of nearby plants. The eggs are safely hidden inside the husk.

“How does pollen get past the protective husk to the eggs? You might say it takes a silk road. The silks are the soft, whitish fibers that dangle from the tip of an unpeeled ear, or spike, of corn. Each ear has hundreds of them. If you trace an individual silk to its source, you will come to an ovule (ovary), which houses the egg. One silk, one egg. Each egg, in turn, produces one kernel of corn.

“The visible ends of the silks, which sway in the pollen-laden breeze, have fine hairs, or stigmas, that latch onto drifting grains of pollen. Once a pollen grain is snagged, which can occur anywhere along an exposed silk, the grain germinates and sends a tube, like a root, down through the silk to fertilize the egg.

“Missing kernels are an indication that some silks were not pollinated, perhaps because they failed to grow in time. Dry soil can cause that. Once again, if a farmer knows the symptoms, he can usually do something to correct the problem and improve his yield​—if not for the present crop, at least for the next one. Something I did to improve my crops was to plant corn one year and soybeans the next. Soybeans are a legume that adds nitrogen to the soil and that the corn borer​—a destructive caterpillar—​cannot eat. *

“It always gives me great pleasure to see a bare field gradually turn green and then produce an abundance of food​—and all this quietly, cleanly, and beautifully. I am truly convinced that corn​—like all plants—​is a  wonder of creation. And what I have learned barely scratches the surface.”

Have Harlin’s comments piqued your curiosity about other aspects of this amazing plant? Consider its history and versatility.

From Mexico to the Rest of the World!

The cultivation of corn began in the Americas, most likely in Mexico, and spread from there. Pre-Inca Peruvians worshipped a corn goddess adorned with a crown of corn ears radiating laterally from her head like the spokes of a wheel. Nature writer Joseph Kastner states that the Indians of the Americas “worshiped [corn] as the stuff made by gods, the stuff of which man himself was made . . . It was so cheap to produce​—a single plant gave a man enough food for a day.” However, the native peoples supplemented their diet with beans, a common Latin-American practice to this day.

The European discovery of corn came in 1492 after explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. Columbus’ son Ferdinand wrote that his father saw a grain “that they call maize and is most tasty, boiled, roasted, or ground into flour.” Columbus took seed home, and “by the mid-1500s,” Kastner writes, “[corn] was growing not just in Spain but in Bulgaria and Turkey. Slavers carried corn to Africa . . . [Portuguese-born Spanish explorer Ferdinand] Magellan’s men dropped Mexican seed off in the Philippines and Asia.” The corn boom had begun.

Nowadays, corn is the second-largest cereal crop in the world, surpassed only by wheat. Rice is the third-largest cereal crop. These three staples feed most of the human race, not to mention livestock.

Like other grasses, corn comes in many varieties. Indeed, more than 1,000 named kinds, including hybrids, are found in the United States alone. Plants range in height from about two feet [60 cm] to a towering 20 feet [6 m]! Ear lengths vary too. Some are just two inches [5 cm] long; others, a whopping two feet [60 cm]. “Some kinds of South American corn grown today,” says the book Latin American Cooking, “produce massive ears shaped like footballs, with flat kernels an inch long and almost as broad.”

Corn also comes in a variety of colors. Besides yellow, an ear may be red, blue, pink, or black. And in some cases, kernels may give an ear a banded, spotted, or even striped appearance. Understandably, such colorful corncobs sometimes bypass the cooking pot and become eye-catching ornaments.

A Versatile Grain

The many varieties of corn are grouped into six major kinds: dent corn, flint corn, flour corn, sweet corn, waxy corn, and popcorn. Sweet corn is only a minor crop. Its sweetness is due to a metabolic defect that results in less sugar than normal being converted to starch. Worldwide, more than 60 percent of the corn harvest feeds livestock and just under 20 percent is for human consumption. The balance serves industry or is used as seed. Of course, ratios vary from country to country.

Corn has countless uses. The grain or its derivatives can be found in anything from adhesives to mayonnaise and from beer to paper diapers. Corn has even found a niche in the fuel industry​—albeit a controversial one—​in the production of ethanol. To be sure, the story of this amazing and versatile plant is still being written.

[Footnote]

[Box on page 11]

Hybrid Corn

In many countries, corn farmers usually grow hybrids because of their high yield. Hybrid varieties, mostly of dent corn, are developed by controlled crosses and the inbreeding of plants that have the desired traits. A consequence of this practice, however, is that farmers have to buy seed for every crop. Why? Plants grown from the seed of a previous hybrid crop may vary in quality and produce a lower yield.

[Pictures on page 10]

Corn comes in hundreds of varieties worldwide

[Credit Lines]

Courtesy Sam Fentress

Courtesy Jenny Mealing/​flickr.com