Maize, Corn, Sweetcorn, Zea Mays

Botanical History

Maize is the third most grown cereal crop in the world after rice and wheat. Like wheat and rice, it is also a type of grass with an overgrown seed head.  It is generally agreed that it originated in Central or South America but this is speculation as there is no living wild relative.  Two possible ancestors are the annual Zea mexicana (know as Teosinte locally) and the tripsacum both of which readily hybridise with the maize plant.

However prehistoric forms of corn, with seed heads about the size of a matchbox dating back to 70 000 BC, have been found in an archaeological dig in Mexico city. From the same dig there is evidence that a later form of this prehistoric plant was cultivated around 3500 BC.   Around 3000 years later forms of corn also turn up in Peru and in both areas there is more evidence of selective breeding of the plant to form the larger seed heeds we know today.

Nutrition

Yellow corn is an important source of a-carotene which coverts readily into vitamin A.  It is also low in fat and counts as one portion of the UK governments recommended 5 a day.

Cooking

The easiest way to cook a fresh corn on the cob is to submerge it in water and boil it for around 10 minutes.  The timing can depend on the size, variety and the freshness of the cob.  Alternatively the corn can be separated from the stem with a sharp knife and used in a variety of different ways: they can be steamed, added to soups and stews or boiled in a little water.

One of my favourite corn recipes is corn fritters; simply mix some fresh corn (separated from the cob) with some batter.  In a warm pan fry them up in about biscuit sized circles until browned all over.

Growing Tips

Although it is generally not advised I have successfully planted sweetcorn in situ (directly into the soil).  It is best however to plant first in pots in the greenhouse or on a windowsill around April or May then plant out in early July as the weather warms up. They are wind pollinated so need to be sown in blocks about 1 to 2 feet or 50 cm apart.  The block needs to contain a few plants to be successful but I have managed this with only nine plants in groups of three.  Obviously the more plants you have the better the chance of pollination.  The cobs should take around 90 days to mature and they should be soft to the touch when ready.

The Aztecs used to plant a corn, squash and bean matrix to maximise space. This method seems to work in warmer climates better as the beans tend to grow much faster than the corn in the UK. However a faster growing corn variety and slower growing bean should tackle this problem.

Article written by Dave Hamilton. Dave has now left Selfsufficientish but you can catch up with him on davehamilton.me.uk or on twitter @davewildish

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