A kernel of corn planted in the spring can sprout and grow as tall as 10 feet. That’s when the magic happens. The male bits and the female parts conspire to yield several squeaky ears, each loaded with a thousand kernels bursting with sugars, vitamins and fiber. It’s no wonder that corn has become one of the world’s most dominant crops.
Story: Think you know corn? Chew on this.
A tassel of male flowers can produce 25 million grains of pollen.
Corn Belt Dent
How kernels develop
Teosinte , corn’s wild ancestor
Trichome (a tiny hair that catches pollen)
Each silk leads to a tiny ovule that will swell into a kernel, but only if fertilized.
Corn relies on wind for pollination. The tassel’s pollen is heavy, usually falling within only about 10 feet of the plant. If a grain of pollen sticks to a silk, a pollen tube quickly sprouts from the grain and grows down the length of the silk, carrying male genetic material.
In less than a day, the pollen tube reaches the ovule to fertilize the egg . The resulting zygote stimulates the growth of a kernel, which accumulates sugars that will later turn into hard starch if the cob is allowed to mature.
Corn (native Americans called it “maize”) was first cultivated in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. When European colonists arrived, they encountered two races of corn in eastern North America: Northern Flint and Southern Dent, which they cross-bred to develop Corn Belt Dent, the ancestor of most corn hybrids today. Corn is one of many crops that in recent decades have been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides, drought and insects, the last of which have begun to develop resistance to the toxins engineered into every part of the plant.
An evolution driven by humans
Squanto taught Plymouth colonists to plant corn in the spring — “when oak leaves are as big as a mouse’s ear.” Corn’s own ears are mature 65 to 90 days later.
Ears nearest the top are always largest. They can be harvested when they feel plump at the tip, about 20 days after silks emerge.
Silks are elongated parts of the female flower, or ear. Light green when they emerge, silks stop growing once they’re pollinated, drying out and turning rusty brown as the kernels mature.
Depending on the hybrid, corn might have from 13 to 17 leaves.
Corn always has an even number of rows of kernels.
Silking stage (ovules)
Blister stage (fertilized kernels)
Milk stage (best for eating)
SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Nebraska, Purdue University, PLOS One.