Zea mays: Maize, Corn

Family: Poaceae
Common name: Maize, Corn, Indian corn, Sweet corn

Tasty and healthy food like corn on the cob and popcorn would not be possible if not for this versatile vegetable known as Maize or Corn. It is said to have been cultivated over 10,000 years ago, the first domesticated cereal.

Corn is now a staple food in many countries, and the total production is higher than wheat or rice. Top producers are US, China and Brazil. In India, corn has been used for years to make rotis. Grilled corn, Corn on the cob, popcorn and cereals are relatively new entrants, but have captured palettes and hearts very quickly.

Maize plants can grow to a height of 3 meters with long stems having many internodes. Broad, green leaves arise from these nodes, and are about 1-1.2 meters in length. Corn ears develop along the axil between the stem and the leaves, which are basically female flowers covered by multiple layers of thin, sheath-like covering called husks.

The ends of the ears have long, shiny, hair-like male flowers which produce pollen. This pollen is dispersed by wind and fertilizes elongated stigma called silks that emerge from the ears of corn.

The carpels inside the corn develop into kernels when fertilized. The kernels are the edible part of corn, arranged beautifully in uniform lines along the pith of the corn. A single corn can contain up to 600 kernels which about 1-1.5 cms long. They are mostly golden yellow in color, though there are red, white, blue, cream, pink, purple, brown, black and red corn kernels as well.

The common types of corn are Sweet corn or Zea mays var. saccharata and Zea mays var. rugosa; Popcorn or Zea mays var. everta; Flour corn or Zea mays var. amylacea; Flint corn or Zea mays var. indurata; Pod corn or Zea mays var. tunicata etc.

Corn is used in various forms in cooking. Corn flour is used in making breads, cakes and rotis though it has very low quantities of gluten and does not rise like the wheat flour. They are the main ingredient in tortillas and tamales, which are cooked inside corn husks. Corn flour is also used to thicken soups and curries.

Corn is used in making porridges, cereals, salads, stews and also alcoholic beverages. Corn silk can be eaten or used to make tea. Kernels and leaves are used as livestock fodder.

Corn has good quantities of fiber, that helps in improving gut health and digestion. They also contain minerals like calcium, potassium, sodium, zinc, iron and vitamins like Vitamin C, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin A, Vitamin K1 etc. Corn has some medicinal properties, and is used in treatment of diabetes, ulcers, tumors, rheumatism, warts and hypertension.

Propagation is through seeds or corn kernels.

Image credits: Durga Prasad