Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Corn, Maize and Indian Corn: A Brief History of Corn

By Master Gardener Marianne McNiel

I love this time of year with the crackle of dried leaves and the smell of early, wood-burning fires.  The last of our yummy, local sweet corn is disappearing and decorative “Indian” corn starts to appear in our local garden centers and grocery stores.  I contemplate what life might have been like for those that first lived in Pennsylvania. Did they eat the same type of corn that we have now? What is “Indian” corn anyway and how is it different? Where did corn originate?
Indian Corn picture taken at Herbein's Garden Center in Emmaus

It turns out that corn is the only agricultural cereal that is native to the Western Hemisphere. Other cereal grains, like wheat, rye and barley, were brought by early settlers. The first explorers to come to our continent were surprised by the tall grassy plant that the native people were growing. The American native tribes were cultivating corn, that they called “maize”, for thousands of years.  It has been found in archaeological sites in Mexico that date back 7,000 years.  Even then, corn was so specialized and domesticated that it required man for survival. These early people depended on this crop to survive and corn depended on man to survive.  The early settlers took corn plants and seeds back to their home countries where it became an important new agricultural crop. The name “corn” may have come from early European explorers, and the word originally meant any crop grown by the local people.

Scientists disagree about the source of the first corn plant as well as how it evolved and was hybridized. Using genetic information, Dr. George Beadle while at Cornell University traced the origin of corn to a Mexican grass plant known as teosinte.  Other scientists believe that the ancestor of corn is now extinct. (Yes, plants can be driven to extinction just like animals.)  This has been debated for some time, but combined with the archaeological findings, it is evident that corn has been domesticated over a long period of time. It has changed dramatically from its original form to produce more of the juicy kernels that are also easily removed from the cob.

The most surprising thing about corn may be its variety. It is a very adaptable plant and 150 types of corn have been identified from Mexico, to South and Central America and the Caribbean.  Many types are cultivated today, including popcorn, a genetically old plant!   There is also the starchy dent corn that is grown in the Midwest Corn Belt for feed, food processing and even energy or ethanol. In 1997, we started to grow genetically modified (GM) corn and now a large percentage of the corn produced in the United States is GM corn.

Our sweet corn today is thought to have come from hybrids produced in Peru.  The corn eaten by the native people and first settlers of Pennsylvania was brought here from the South and West and cultivated.  It may not have been quite as sweet since our corn has been modified to maximize sweetness! Many local growers say that their local sweet corn is best and I do not disagree.   

Now, what about the colorful “Indian” corn? Where did it originate and why did we call it that? Well, that is a story that is not as well documented.  It is thought that we named this colorful corn after the indigenous people that first introduced us to corn. This corn is now grown purely for its interesting pigmentation and rarely eaten.  The dramatic and varied pigmentation we see today was created from hybrids within only the last 50 years. The early native tribes never saw corn this colorful.  So the name “Indian” corn really does not fit well, but we continue to use this term along with our cultural images of Thanksgiving.

So next time you eat corn or hang “Indian” corn on your door, remember that corn or maize has a long and interesting agricultural history!  Early farmers were quite talented, and we can thank them for their agricultural efforts.


Support Your Local Farmer

LEHIGH VALLEY: Fairman Farm, home to the Snoopy Barn Produce Stand, is located in Nazareth. For the past 30 years they have organically (not certified) grown a variety of vegetables, melons, berries, garlic, pumpkins and sweet corn. Our sweet corn is Sh2 -sugar enhanced, bi-color sweet corn that is known for its flavor, sweetness, and beauty.

BERKS: Valley Run CSA, located in Bally, sells sweet corn and many other vegetables as part of their CSA.

BUCKS: Eastburn Farm, located in Pineville, sells sweet corn, indian corn, corn stalks, tomatoes, and over 60 varieties of pumpkins!



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