What is Maize?

Mary McMahon

Maize, also known as corn, is one of the most extensively cultivated cereal crops on Earth. More is produced, by weight, than any other grain, and almost every country on Earth cultivates maize commercially for a variety of uses. The abundant global cultivation has led to concerns about monocropping and biodiversity, especially since genetic evidence suggests that maize is radically less diverse than it was originally. In addition, this cereal is heavily genetically modified, and the crop has been used as a rallying point by the anti-Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) community.

Corn plants.
Corn plants.

The exact domestication point for maize is unknown, but it is estimated that the crop is at least 9,000 years old. The plant was originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, and appears to be related to species of wild grass which still exist in Central American today. People in many English speaking nations know maize as corn. Originally, the term “corn” could refer to any type of grain. When maize was brought back to Europe, it was called “Indian corn,” a reference to the source of the plant. The term was shortened to “corn” as the plant became ubiquitous in many gardens. In Africa, it is known as mealies.

Corn cobs.
Corn cobs.

Globally, maize is a staple crop, and many people rely on it as a primary source of nutrition. In addition to playing a major role in the human diet, it is also used as livestock fodder. Corn is processed to make an assortment of products ranging from high fructose corn syrup to biofuels, all of which play important roles in human society. Oddly enough, maize is at the forefront of the green revolution with byproducts like compostable containers and biofuel, while simultaneously being used as a controversial food additive in the form of corn syrup and other derivatives.

Cornmeal made with maize.
Cornmeal made with maize.

Domesticated maize grows to a height of 8 feet (2.5 meters). It is typically planted in rows to make it easy to harvest the female ears once they mature. The crop is also surprisingly vulnerable to pests and drought, given its global importance as a food source. The development of GMO maize was partially designed to address this issue, but some consumers are concerned about the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

Squash can be planted alongside corn and beans to complete the "three sisters" technique.
Squash can be planted alongside corn and beans to complete the "three sisters" technique.

When maize was initially cultivated in the Americas, it was grown along with beans and squash. The beans used the corn stalks to support themselves as they grew, while the squash offered a ground cover. The combination was also healthy for the soil, which was additionally enriched with alkaline substances. The addition of alkali to the soil proved to be an important part of growing maize, as alkali frees up niacin in the grain. When corn was initially exported to other regions, many people suffered from pellagra, or niacin deficiency, until the problem was identified and corrected.

Corn syrup, which is made from maize.
Corn syrup, which is made from maize.
An ear of corn, also called maize.
An ear of corn, also called maize.
Beans can grow up the stalks of corn.
Beans can grow up the stalks of corn.

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Discussion Comments


I love that decorative red and black maize that you see in fall mixed in with pumpkin displays. I believe it is called “Indian corn.”

Some kernels are dark red, and others are black. This is the most interesting maize I have ever seen.

Do people eat this kind of corn, or is it just for decoration? I've never been served this corn before, and the only places I've seen it have been centerpieces and garden displays.


I have some little corn cob skewers with plastic yellow cobs of maize as the handles. I use these whenever I eat corn on the cob.

The skewers are helpful, because the corn cob holds heat incredibly well. The cob will take longer to cool down than the kernels, so it will be hard to hold with your hands, even when the corn is cool enough to eat.


@JackWhack – Maize handles freezing really well. I buy maize at the local farmer's market when it's in season, and I stock up on it for the winter.

I boil it for about twenty minutes in salted water. I absolutely love freshly ground black pepper on my corn, along with salt.

My husband likes to butter his corn, but I don't think it's necessary. I love experiencing the juicy sweetness without all that melted fat in the way.


Maize planting is extremely common where I live. I suppose that the weather and the amount of rainfall allow the maize to flourish.

My dad always plants several rows of maize, and we end up with enough corn to stock a freezer! I love the taste of garden grown sweet corn so much that I sometimes snack on it raw as I'm shucking the cobs.

We boil the corn just a little while before freezing it. When we are ready to eat it, we just take it out of the freezer and boil it until it is hot and tender.


@chrisinbama: Transgenic maize is corn that has been deliberately genetically modified. It has intentional traits that have been engineered into it. One of those traits is a resistance to herbicides and resistance to insect pests. By 2009, transgenic maize was being grown commercially in 11 countries, including the U.S.

Several organizations and groups in Mexico are trying to stop the planting of transgenic maize, stating that it is a historic crime against the people. Mexico is the center of origin of maize and is the basic food source for the Mexican population.

It is said that there are scientific studies that report negative impacts on the health of humans and animals fed with transgenic food.


I heard something about transgenic maize in the news but I'm not sure what it is or what the dispute is about. Does anyone have any information on that?

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