Corn has undergone a massive transformation from its original form. In the early years of corn, the kernels were small and ears resembled the head at the top of a wheat plant (1). The cultivation of corn, grown in combination with beans and squash in the three sisters plot, happened simultaneously by the Maya and Native Americans on separate continents. Corn is Over the years, cross-pollination resulted in genetic changes in corn, which affects the size and shape of the plant. Today, over 200 different varieties of corn exist. Corn growing has become controversial, due to the corporate control of monoculture and questionable GMO practices. However, home-grown sweet corn has an unbeatable taste. High quality sweet corn requires proper soil moisture, nutrients and harvest time. One corn plant yields one to two ears of corn, which means that plenty of growing space is required. It is recommended to grow several rows for optimum pollination. However, if planting a small crop, grow in blocks rather than rows. Corn grows best in rich, well-drained, easily worked soil. Sandy soil is ideal for spring planting as it warms up quickly. Corn has three seasonal varieties - early, mid and late season, with late season producing the best quality kernels. Corn is a warm-weather crop, and optimum temperatures for planting are between 60 and 95 F. Hybrid seeds do not save well, as hybrids show “considerable variability” and usually produce “inferior plants and ears (1).” Stalks grow as tall as 15 feet, and roots extend 1 foot into the ground. Some roots, known as “prop roots,” grow above ground in order to support the height of the plant. Planting successively every two weeks throughout the growing season will yield a continual harvest. Corn varieties are divided into four main groups: sweet corn, field corn, popcorn and ornamental corn. The kernel texture, shape and size is dependent on sugar and starch content, which differs with each variety. However, all varieties grow in the same basic way. Companion plant with beans, amaranth, cucumber, white geranium, melons, peas, pumpkin, soybeans, squash, sunflowers, legumes (peanuts especially), cucurbits, lamb’s quarter, parsley, morning glory and potato.
The pollination of corn explains the presence of two distinct features located on the plant: the golden hairs sticking up at the top of the plant and the sticky silky strings located within each ear of corn (that makes shucking so much fun). When corn reaches about ⅔ of it’s full height, the plant starts developing its reproductive characteristics. Straw-like “tassels” grow at the top of the plant, followed by silky strings in the ears of corn. The number of silk strands corresponds to the number of kernels in each ear, and the pollen produced by the tassels falls to the silks, resulting in fertilization. While corn does not pollinate itself, the pollen flies to the silks of other plants, which is planting corn in blocks is recommended. Pollination can be disrupted by weather and other conditions, which explains the lack of kernels in some ears. Ears are ready to harvest around three weeks after initial pollination. Kernels develop fastest in hot weather and with plenty of water.
Newly formed kernels contain a sweet milk and contain the most flavor, which makes this stage the optimum time to harvest. The milk remains only for a short period, though, as it is then transformed into starch. Being aware of the growing stages of corn result in the tastiest harvest. Kernels lose their sweet taste after the milk is converted into starch, known as the “dough” stage. If ears are not harvested until after the dough stage, corn seeds lose their water content and dry up. In this final stage, kernels can be used for winter storage (2).
Culinary and Medicinal Uses of Corn
Prior to the cultivation of sweet corn in the 1700s, field corn was cooked and used for breads, puddings, ground into cornmeal and stored for the winter. Field corn was also fed to livestock, as is the case today. Corn is highly versatile, and can be boiled, roasted, grilled, blended, ground and steamed. Sweet corn is most commonly used in culinary dishes. Cornmeal is the dried and ground-up form of corn, and can be used to make cornbread. Cornmeal is used to for make variations of flat breads in various cultures, such as Makki Ki Roti bread in Indian cuisine and Tortillas in Mexico (4). Boiled is the classic way to prepare corn. Roasting corn on the grill infuses the ear with a smoky flavor (3). A simple combination of butter, salt and pepper are common corn toppings. In Mexico, corn on the cob is often prepared by brushing corn with melted butter and sprinkling with cojita cheese, chili powder and lime juice (6).
Corn contains a high amount of thiamin (vitamin B1, helps body convert carbohydrates into glucose and strengthens immune system), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), folate, niacin (vitamin B3) and vitamin C. The kernels are also a hearty source of fiber and the minerals phosphorus and potassium. The fiber content of corn makes it an aid in the reduction of colon cancer, as well as a blood-sugar regulator that provides slow-burning energy. Corn is a preferable grain for diabetics (4). Corn’s supply of niacin, folate and magnesium support heart health. The yellow color of corn indicates its beta-cryptoxanthin content, a carotenoid that may significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer. Corn, though known mainly as sustenance, contains numerous medicinal qualities, even beyond the kernel. In fact, the corn silk is used for its healing properties, working on the urinary tract, kidney stones and cystitis. Cornsilk is prescribed in Chinese medicine to treat fluid retention and jaundice (3). Due to its high potassium content and diuretic properties, cornsilk can be used for most problems afflicting the urinary tract. Cornsilk is used for frequent urination, and soothes the lining of the urinary tract, relieving irritation and easing urinary flow. For this purpose, cornsilk can be used for urinary tract infections. Cornsilk helps in prostate diseases where there is difficulty passing urine. Cornsilk is also used to heal Temporomandibular joint syndrome (3).
Significance to Cultural Communities
Corn is native to western Sierra Madre in Mexico. Corn has been grown by different cultures all over the world for centuries. Central and South American cultures depended so heavily upon corn that they constructed some of the earliest calendars in order to keep record of corn planting and harvesting. Corn was a staple of the Native American traditional diet, and was used both as food and for its medicinal powers. Mayan, Incan and American folk medicine use corn as a poultice to treat bruises, swelling, sores and boils. The Chickasaw Indians used corn to heal itching skin and sores by burning old corncobs and immersing the skin in the smoke (3). Corn is eaten in a variety of ways in a variety of cultures. The Brazilian dish Canjica is made by mixing and boiling corn kernels with sweetened milk. Corn on the cob is a staple summer food in the United States, United Kingdom, India, Canada, and is sold as street food in Mexico. Cornmeal is used to make polenta in Italian cooking. In Vietnam, dried corn kernels are mixed with green onion, seasoned with oil and salt and eaten as a snack (4).
Known as maize in south America, corn has been a staple to many Latin American cultures throughout history. In Mayan culture, representations of their sun god were depicted to the god of maize, linked through the life cycle: birth, life, death, and rebirth. Huichol people in Mexico use blood from the sacred deer to feed maize. The deer is a spirit said to guide shamans. Hopi people in America still perform ritual dances to the corn spirits today (9). Iroquois people believe corn, beans, and squash are gifts from a Great Spirit, each watched over by three sister spirits named De-o-ha-ko - Our Sustainers - this is the origin of the name, “three sisters plot.” Additionally, early European settlers in America survived because of the gift of the Three Sisters, which was the story behind Thanksgiving traditions (8). Modern uses of the corn include the starch being extracted from the seeds, used to make glue. It is also used in the production of mineral makeup. The oil from sweet corn is utilized in paints and soaps. A part of the stem is also used in packing material (7).
Other A-Maize-ing corn facts:
Glue is made from the starch of the seeds
The pith of the stems is used to make packing material
Fiber from seed husks and stems is used to make paper
An oil with industrial uses is obtained from semi-dried oil
From the Community Voice
“Three sister’s plot… that might be a new concept for some people but for people who do farming or gardening is a favorite. The three sister’s plot consists of corn squash and beans. The three are planted together to maximize their potential. This system goes back to the Mayas but around the same time to the Native Americans. This was a method developed to increase the production of these three plants which were the main and most important components of the Maya and Native American diet. The corn provides the space for the beans to grow, the beans become a fertilizer for the corn and the squash, and the squash provides a good water retention system. In my case, the three sister’s plot is one of my favorite things in the garden and as an activist I can’t help but to make a connection between the three sister’s plot and society. Let’s look at it this way; by themselves, these three plants will produce and will survive, but when they are together their potential is expanded and the chances of them producing, as well as the quantity and quality, are increased. Now, in our society we have been taught that in order to be productive and successful we have to live our lives though a model of individualism. We have this language and mindset of the individual. In reality is this individual mentality that in many occasions has crippled our nation, our businesses, our relations, our communities, and even our families. The truth is that we really need each other just like the corn, beans and squash need each other”
- Ian Torres, Heritage Garden Intern
1.Lerner, B. Rosie, and Michael N. Dana. "Growing Sweet Corn." (n.d.): n. pag. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service. Web. <http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/ho-98.pdf>
2 "Corn History and How It Grows." Food Gardening Guide :. The National Gardening Association, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. <http://www.garden.org/foodguide/browse/veggie/corn_getting_started/397>.
3."Uses of Sweet Corn." MDidea: Exporting Division Extracts Professional. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://www.mdidea.com/products/new/new072e.html>.
4."Corn." IFood.tv. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://ifood.tv/corn/about>.
5."3 Easy Ways to Cook Sweet Corn on the Cob." The Kitchn. Apartment Therapy, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://www.thekitchn.com/3-easy-ways-to-cook-sweet-corn-on-the-cob-tips-from-the-kitchn-121823>.
6."Mexican Corn on the Cob." Damn Delicious. BlogHer Food Network, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://damndelicious.net/2014/04/18/mexican-corn-cob/>.
7. “Zea Mays.” Plants For a Future. http://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Zea+mays
8. Formiga, Alice. “Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash.” Renee’s Garden. http://www.reneesgarden.com/articles/3sisters.html
9. Jenks, Kathleen. “Latin America: The Lore and History of Maize.” Mything Links. September 11, 2002. http://www.mythinglinks.org/ip~maize.html