Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Corn History and How it Grows

by National Gardening Association Editors

All about corn's past and the different types available.

About Corn

Corn is authentically American. A member of the grass family, it was first domesticated from a wild grain several thousand years ago by Aztec and Mayan Indians in Mexico and Central America. The first corn was a loose-podded variety that looked like the seed head at the top of wheat stalks. The kernels were small and each covered by a hull. Central and South American peoples came to depend so heavily on corn -- or maize -- that they devised some of the earliest calendars just to keep track of their corn planting and harvesting schedules.

Eventually, corn's popularity spread to North America. By the time the first European settlers arrived on this continent, corn was the chief food crop of the native Indians. The colonists quickly learned how to grow corn, and they enthusiastically adopted the new staple. In fact, much of the early fighting that took place between the settlers and the Indians was over cornfields. The stakes were high; losing a cornfield meant losing your food supply.

Back then, people raised what's now called field corn. Some corn was eaten fresh, but most of the harvest was cooked in fried cakes, breads and puddings, dried for winter storage or ground into cornmeal and corn flour. Field corn was also used for livestock feed, as it is today. Sweet corn varieties weren't developed until the 1700s.

Over the years, cross-pollination during cultivation caused genetic changes that transformed corn into the shape and size we now know. Today, corn is still more popular in this country than anywhere else in the world. There are thousands of strains of corn, with more than 200 varieties of sweet corn alone.

Varieties

All the varieties can be divided into four basic groups: field corn, sweet corn, popcorn and ornamental corn. There are many varieties of field corn; some are favorites of gardeners and farmers who eat them as roasting ears. These can be "dent" or "flint" corns, both of which can also be dried and ground for homemade meal. Flint corn has a hard-shelled kernel, and it does well in the cooler climates of New England and Canada. Dent corn is somewhat hard-shelled, and the top of the kernel forms a characteristic dented shape when the ears are mature.

Popcorn, another hard-shelled variety, contains very hard starch that expands when heated until the kernel pops. For all the corn groups, kernel texture, shape and flavor are often governed by the starch and sugar content, and this differs with each variety. These variations are exactly what make our favorite fresh corn varieties the soft-shelled, moist and sweet-tasting ones; that's why they're known as sweet corn.

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