Column: Maize is amazing
Published 7:32 pm Friday, October 14, 2005
To many animals corn is simply irresistible. Deer knowingly risk their lives for it, sneaking through a gauntlet of hunters for a nibble. Geese and ducks do likewise, knowing no matter how long they circle over the corn stubble cautiously searching for the glint of a gun barrel or an exposed face they are chancing supreme sacrifice for a taste. Pheasants and corn fields are synonymous. Raccoons, squirrels and doves are addicted to it and a corn field draws songbirds like a magnet. We humans are even more reliant on corn. It serves us with food, sweeteners and whiskey. It goes in our gas tanks as ethanol and radiators as antifreeze. From it we make packing and insulation, adhesives, explosives and paint, insecticide and soap. Folks with nothing better to do have listed over 500 uses for corn.
So where did this wonder plant come from? Are its roots in nature or is it a product of man? The answer is both. The true of origin of corn cannot be proven but we do know it's one of the few American contributions to the world's most important crops. Christopher Columbus ”discovered“; corn, or maize as it's more correctly called, in Cuba on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Since Biblical times the word corn had been a somewhat generic term for Old World grains such as wheat, oats and barley. Chris naturally applied this term to maize, as well, and it obviously stuck. He took this ”corn“; back to Europe with him not knowing it would eventually become more important than the gold he was seeking. At first it languished simply as a garden curiosity but soon corn caught on and spread throughout Southern Europe and Northern Africa. In less than one hundreds years it was a staple crop throughout Europe, Africa, China and the Indies.
Most experts think corn originated in Mexico. Core samples drilled from underneath Mexico City reveal corn pollen dating back 80,000 years. Evidence of corn found in Mexican archaeological explorations has been carbon dated to 5000 B.C. In New Mexico corn cobs found in bat caves date back 5,600 years. Corn has been around for a while.
Corn is actually a member of the grass family. The most common speculation is that it originated by the natural crossing of certain gamagrasses to make a plant called teosinte. That backcrossed to produce a primitive maize. That's about where man stepped in to start developing maize into its more modern form. Corn is arguably the most domesticated of all field crops and today has been mucked with so much it is wholly dependent on man. It can not exist as a wild plant.
As plants go, corn is quite unique. The plant has both male and female flowers. The spiky tassel on top is the male flower while the cobs down on the stalk are the female flowers. The silk on the cob is the receptor. A strand of silk goes to every kernel. Pollen from the tassel falls onto the silk which then transfers it to the kernel. If a strand of silk does not happen to catch pollen, its kernel will not form. That's the cause for those occasional rasty ears that you throw in the garbage.
By the time of European exploration in the Americas corn was well developed. With the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and the various Pueblo Dweller civilizations of our Southwest corn growing took precedence over all other activities. It also became instrumental in the settlement of the Midwest. Settlers found the woods openings and prairies in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa perfect for corn and came in droves to grow the crop. Iowa remains the number one corn producing state followed closely by Illinois.
As us Michiganders know, corn also built the city of Battle Creek. In 1894 Dr. John Kellogg, head of the local sanitarium, invented corn flakes. He kept his patients on strict vegetarian diets and was trying to make the grain more palatable. He and his brother William opened the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Co. in 1906. Carpe diem.