Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 575-A   October 4, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt of Conservation

On November 5, 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that, in the interior of Cuba, there was a great deal of land "sowed with a sort of beans and a sort of grain they call Mahiz, which was well tasted, baked, dried, and made into flour." Later, Spanish explorers found this plant being cultivated as the principal food crop in every land from New Mexico to Peru and Chile.

Columbus took some of the grain back to Spain and for a while it was grown in gardens as a curiosity. By 1539 it had been introduced into Turkey and grown so extensively there that it became known as Turkish Corn, "corn" being an English term for cereal grains such as wheat and barley. Today, in Europe, it is called maize or Indian corn.

When the Pilgrims landed in 1620 they found, buried beneath a heap of sand, a large basket of "corn, some in ears, faire and good, of diverse colours. " Luckily, they saved it until the following spring when Squanto, a friendly Indian, showed them how to plant it, with three herring placed spokewise on each hillock. That crop of corn saved them from starvation and at harvest time they celebrated with a feast of Thanksgiving.

The prehistoric mound builders and cliff dwellers, and some cave dwellers who lived 4000 years ago, were corn-growing and corn-eating peoples. Corn was the backbone of the remarkable civilizations developed by the Aztecs in Mexico, the Mayas in Central America, and the fabulous Incas of Bolivia and Peru. It was a staple food in North America for every Indian tribe from Arizona and the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast.

There was a great diversity of varieties and of colors, including yellow, red, blue and white. All of the principal types we know today -- dent corn, flint corn, flour or soft corn, sweet corn and pop corn -- were in existence when America was discovered but none has ever been found growing wild. Somehow, maize became so domesticated and specialized that it could no longer reproduce itself unless its seed was gathered, planted and tended by man. Its origin is a mystery.

Corn is a grass. It belongs to the great plant family which includes the myriad of grasses that cover our lawns, pastures and prairies. That family also includes bamboo and sugar cane, as well as rice, wheat, barley, rye, oats, kaffir corn and other grains.

Corn or maize, however, differs from all other grasses, whether wild or cultivated, in the nature of its female seed-producing flowers. At the top of the stalk are the male flowers, the tassel, that shed pollen. Down on the stalk it develops one or more "ears, " the female flowers, enclosed in husks. Each ear is tufted with the sticky ends of many threads of "silk. " At the inner end of each thread, fertilized by a microscopic grain of pollen, is a flower that develops a seed or kernel. The mature ear is a compact mass of such kernels in parallel rows upon the rigid central "cob" .

For many years it was thought that corn originated from Teosinte, a wild grass found in Guatemala and southern Mexico. It has tassels and, borne separately, tiny ears with 5 or 6 seeds each enclosed in a bony shell. A more distant relative is Tripsacum, a wild grass that occurs in both North and South America.

In South America there was a peculiar primitive plant, now virtually extinct, called "pod" corn. On a slender cob it produces kernels each enclosed in a chaffy shell or pod, similar to wheat and other cereals. Crossed with Tripsacum, the hybrid is a plant resembling teosinte. Pod corn, not teosinte, was probably the ancestor of maize -- King Corn -- the most important plant in America.

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