Corn characteristics


Drawing of the plant

Drawing of the plant

Maize or corn (Zea mays) is a cereal, a gramineous plant characterized by having a cane stalk as other grasses, although solid inside unlike other family members that have it void.

Corn is mainly distinguished by its female inflorescence, called corncob, where the seeds (kernels) are grouped along one axis.

Corn ear is covered by green bracts with papery texture, and ends in a kind of dark yellow plume, formed by the styles.

Historical importance of corn

Archaeological remains indicate that maize cultivation began almost 5000 years ago in America. This food was the basis of many ancient American cultures. Aztecs, Incas and Mayans that focused their nutrition on it.

The very name derives from the word mahis, which the natives of Haiti, meant “life-sustaining”. Maize cultivation was already fully established in America when European settlers arrived.

The natives based their nutrition on it and complemented it by growing beans and squash. (Besides food supplement, corn stalks allowed beans to twist around them and squash leaves prevented the development of herbs on the ground.)

By means of these cultivation technique, they could produce some types of very productive foods without a full-time dedication and very easily to be stored.

The expansion of corn in the world

Spanish settlers brought it to Spain in the sixteenth century.

In the early sixteenth century, its cultivation began to be spread in the north of the Iberian Peninsula and, in the eighteenth century, in the rest of Europe.

Today, corn is cultivated in almost all parts of the world, provided they have an irrigation system or spring rains necessary for a proper growth.

Uses of Corn

Corn cobs hanging to dry

Corn cobs hanging to dry has been a traditional practice in the cereal producing areas

  • Corn is, along with rice and wheat, a major food grown in the world. Its use not only focuses on human consumption but on part of animal feed since corn constitute an important ingredient in the composition of feed for pigs, poultry, and cattle. Corn stalks, once separated the cobs, can be used as animal fodder.
  • From this plant many different soft drinks and alcoholic beverages are obtained: a Guatemalan drink, called pinolate (corn flour, sugar and water), the Costa Rican or Honduran pinolillo (corn flour and cocoa), the Mexican atole (corn flour, water, milk and sugar) or other alcoholic beverages called chichas.
  • Besides corn grain, corn flour is extracted for making corn bread, corn cakes, arepas, oji, or other baked goods.
  • Corn oil is also obtained for food use or for industrial preparation of paint or soap.
  • From an industrial viewpoint, this plant is also interesting to obtain food sweeteners (corn syrup) and alcohol produced by fermentation of sugar. This is used in the manufacture of gasohol or carburol a fuel comprising gasoline and alcohol. This way, vehicles can be operated with a cheaper fuel than just gasoline.
  • From unusable parts of corn plant, furfural is obtained, a component that is used for the production of rubber, resins, plastics, insecticides and embalming fluids.

Varieties of corn

Photo of corncobs

In the image: Photo of corncobs

There are many varieties of corn, but they all come from the wild species Zea diploperennis growing in Mexico. This species is very similar to current varieties but has smaller ears and smaller grains.

The selection of the most vigorous varieties and modern farming techniques has produced the current much more productive hybrids.

Current techniques are directed to the production of varieties that are more food-perfect. The most important one is the so called opaque-2 with an amino acid content more suitable for the body.

The main varieties of corn are:

  • Sweet corn (Zea mays L. subsp. Mays saccharata) which is primarily used to eat as a vegetable when young.
  • Flour corn or starchy corn = (Zea mays L. subsp. Amylacea mays) is a variety that has the very soft starch content and is used for making flour.
  • Crusty corn (Zea mays L. subsp. Mays indurata) American Variety characterized in that the grain has a very tough crust.
  • Pop corn = popcorn (Zea mays L. subsp. Mays everta) Characterized by the explosive capacity of the cover when subjected to heat. It is used for making popcorn.
  • Dent corn (Zea mays L. subsp. Mays indentata) When mature, it has a large notch or depression in the grain.

Production of corn in the world

The first corn producer country in the world is the United States, with almost half of the world production.

It is followed by China, Brazil and Mexico

punto rojo More information on corn.

This article was endorsed by Julián Masats - Technical agricultural engineer specialized in horticulture and gardening.
Written by Editorial Botanical-online team in charge of content writing

2 July, 2021

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