Reflections in Nature: Corn is authentically American

Corn is authentically American

Tassels, which are the silks, or stigma of the female flower, develop on newly formed ears of corn.

Recently, my wife, Mary Alice, assigned me to the task of husking corn she planned to have for supper. I was also to save the corn husks; tie them in small bundles and hang them under our patio umbrella to dry. At their next garden club meeting, the ladies are planning to make dolls from the husks.

Corn, which is authentically American, is a member of the grass family. Several thousand years ago, the Aztec and Mayan Indians who lived in Mexico and Central America domesticated corn from a wild grain.

The first corn was a loose-podded variety that was similar to the seed head appearing at the top of wheat stalks. The kernels were small and covered by a hull.

The people living in Central and South America 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, the popularity of corn spread to North America. By the time the first European settlers arrived on this continent, corn was the chief food crop of the Native Americans. The colonists quickly learned from the Native Americans how to plant and grow corn, which was enthusiastically adopted as the new staple.

In fact, much of the early fighting between the settlers and the natives was over cornfields. The stakes were high for losing a cornfield because this meant losing your food supply.

Corn can be divided into four basic groups: field corn, sweet corn, popcorn and ornamental corn. No matter which type of corn you are growing, each basically is grown the same way.

Once the seed or kernel is planted into an inch or two of soil, germination takes place in five to 12 days, depending on the variety and the soil temperature. Corn will not germinate if soil temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

While corn is growing, it develops a thick, fibrous stalk, with flat and pointed leaves. A stalk can reach a height of 15 feet, depending on the climate and variety. The roots of each plant grow down 3 to 5 feet and extend 1 foot on each side of the stalk.

After the stalk reaches about two-thirds of its full height, the reproductive process starts. The plant first develops straw-colored tassels near the top, which are the male flowers of the plant. About three days later, corn tassels, which are the silks or stigma of the female flowers, appear lower on the stalk, developing from the newly formed ears of corn.

Each silk corresponds to a single kernel within the ear, and each kernel must be pollinated in order to have a completely filled ear.

The most essential staple food crops on the planet, such as corn, wheat, rice, soybean and sorghum, need no insect help to be pollinated; instead they are either wind-pollinated or self-pollinated. Each corn tassel has many small branches where male flowers and anthers that produce pollen can be seen.

The wind dispersed pollen, which is relatively heavy, doesn’t fall far from the plant. Usually, the pollen falls on its neighbors and not itself. The wind carries the pollen to the silks that are fluttering about in the wind. Although it’s possible for a corn plant to fertilize itself, the pollen usually travels to the silks of neighboring plants.

The surface of each silk has a tiny hair like receptor that holds the pollen once it lands, and then travels down the silk to the kernel area, where fertilization occurs.

Once pollination takes place, the kernels begin to develop on each cob, depending on the weather; it usually takes three weeks for the first ears to be ready to harvest. The kernels develop faster when the weather is hot, with plenty of water.

Newly formed corn kernels are full of liquid (milk). The milk stage doesn’t last long in most varieties, due to the plant’s natural goal to convert that sweet liquid into starch.

An ear of corn is a miracle of development and flowering. It blows my mind to think each kernel of corn in an ear has to be pollinated by the wind, with a tiny grain of pollen traveling down each strand of silk just to fertilize that one kernel. This definitely explains why many Native American cultures respected the miracle of corn and offered prayers for its pollen.

Hopefully, you will have a greater appreciation for the corn served at your summer picnic, and don’t forget the butter!

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.