What is Corn?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Corn, also known as maize, is one of the most successful cereal grasses of all time. It has been under human cultivation for over 10,000 years and has spread itself into every niche of commercial agriculture. Like most grain producing grasses, corn is an annual that must be replanted each year. While the plant originates in the New World, it is grown all over the world and used for a staggering array of products. It is far more productive than most cereal crops and able to sustain a higher population than relatives like wheat, rye, or rice.

Spoonful of corn syrup.
Spoonful of corn syrup.

Corn grows in warm weather and usually matures in late summer. The stalks can grow between 3 feet (1 meter) and 20 feet (6 meters) tall, depending upon the cultivar. At one point, there were thousands of varieties in production, but these numbers have since dwindled to less than 100 hardy, predictable varieties with large fleshy kernels. Corn grows in ears, tight clusters of kernels around a central core or cob that is covered in a leafy husk. It has been bred in such a way that it has difficulty reproducing without human assistance, thanks to this husk.

An ear of sweet corn.
An ear of sweet corn.

Archaic forms of corn would be unrecognizable to modern consumers. Its ancestor was probably a small grass with ears approximately 2 inches (5 centimeters) long. People determined to eke some sort of nutritional value out of the grass bred it to the plant we are familiar with today, and it quickly diffused all over the United States. It would have been popular among early Americans because it was nutritious, easy to cultivate, tasty, and high yielding.

Cotija cheese sprinkled over corn on the cob.
Cotija cheese sprinkled over corn on the cob.

As a commercial crop, corn is everywhere. It is one of the most intensively genetically modified crops, which has led to serious discussion and comment both inside and outside the agricultural industry. Corn is also one of the most grown crops globally, with thousands of acres being dedicated around the world to high intensity production.

Much of the corn grown in the United States goes toward making high fructose corn syrup.
Much of the corn grown in the United States goes toward making high fructose corn syrup.

Corn is also used in everything imaginable. In addition to being eaten straight off the cob or popped, it is used to manufacture corn syrup, a wildly successful artificial sweetener. It is also used to synthesize a number of compounds used in manufacturing processes, such as corn starch, which is in everything from cardboard to biodegradable containers. The plant is extensively cultivated to produce animal feed, with all feedlot animals consuming pounds of the crop each day. In addition, it is used in the manufacture of alcohol and ethanol, a commonly used alternative fuel.

Corn starch is manufactured from corn.
Corn starch is manufactured from corn.

Corn is one of nature's more amazing success stories, beginning life as a nutritionally useless plant and coming to dominate the diets of humans and the animals they eat. Almost all packaged foods contain products from this plant, no small accomplishment for a humble weed.

Corn has been cultivated for over 10,000 years.
Corn has been cultivated for over 10,000 years.
Corn can be grilled and eaten off the cob.
Corn can be grilled and eaten off the cob.
Depending on the cultivar, corn stalks con grown anywhere from 3 feet to 20 feet tall.
Depending on the cultivar, corn stalks con grown anywhere from 3 feet to 20 feet tall.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon146621

i am doing a science fair project on corn, and i was wondering what would affect the growth rate of the corn plant. Can you help me?

sputnik

To post number 3:

cornichon has nothing to do with corn. It is a miniature pickled cucumber served with pate, cold cuts and other foods. They are very tasty, tiny, and cute. It is French in origin and is another word for gherkin.

anon84598

wow. corn is amazing.

anon70334

I think is a grain. thank you.

anon62760

corn is indeed a grass not a fruit.

anon57401

corn is a fruit.

anon39846

What is/are cornichoms?

ark1972

please provide the details of quality issues of corn.

bestcity

Corn, as well as tomatoes and rice bran, contain a compound that helps fight aging, inflammation and a host of other conditions.

You can substitute olive oil for the butter on the corn on the cob to reduce the amount of saturated fat.

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