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Plant Profile: Corn (Zea mays)


Indian Corn - blue corn, red corn yellow corn - all shapes and sizes

Zea mays - Poaceae

© Kat Morgenstern, October 2007

Botanical drawing of corn, flowers, leaf, fruitThe mother grain of the Americas hardly needs describing - it is so familiar a plant that every child knows it. And it can hardly be overlooked. Corn is a giant among the grasses - growing over 2m high, it covers vast stretches of land and dominates many rural landscapes. The sturdy, fibrous stalk with its characteristic broad angularly bent over leaves is a familiar sight. The ears develop in the leaf axils though they are so well covered by the outer sheathing (husks) that they can barely be seen, were it not for the tuft of hair, the stigma that protrudes from the top of the cobs.

Corn is among the earliest cultivars of the New World. Its wild relative and genetic parent is a species of Teosinte (, or rather, two species of Teosinte that interbred. However, the argument has not been settled beyond doubt, although most researchers believe that modern was first domesticated in Mexico. There are at least 5 species of Teosinte today, but it is impossible to say if any of these was the direct ancestor of our modern corn, or whether in fact the original variety that gave rise to our domesticated corn has become extinct.

Evolution of cornAlthough Teosinte of course resembles corn in many ways the differences between wild and domesticated species are quite distinct. Most notably Teosinte's cobs are tiny and its seeds are hard and covered by a tough skin. Also, upon ripening the ears break off and the seeds are released. Domesticated corn holds on to the ears and does not release its seeds voluntarily. In this respect corn has become entirely dependent on man, It is difficult to estimate how many hundreds or thousands of years it might have taken for corn to evolve into the shape and size we know today, but so far the oldest archaeological evidence for domesticated corn comes from Guilá Naquitz Cave near Mitla in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, which has been dated to approximately 6250 years ago..

What may come as a surprise though, is that corn appears to have been used in Asia for much longer than is commonly assumed: it is generally believed that prior to Columbus there was no contact between the old world and the new, yet, certain archaeological findings in southern India and China, featuring corn and other new world plants seems to prove this conventional theory wrong. Carl L. Johannessen stumbled across some very precise carvings at temples in the Karnataka region of India, which were built during the Hoysala Dynasty, between the 10th and 13th century. Carl L. Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker, "Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century A.D. India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion," Economic Botany 43 , 1989, 164-80, argue that stone carvings of maize ears exist in at least three pre-Columbian Hoysala stone block temples near Mysore, Karnataka state, India. Their article provides 16 photographs of a few of the sculptures in question. . The accuracy of the depictions are quite remarkable. Not just one but numerous distinctive features of maize are represented true to life as a record cast in stone. Yet, many scholars have found it difficult to accept the idea of pre-Columbian contact and have thus projected their own interpretations onto these sculptures - none of which seem terribly convincing.

Varieties of CornCorn hybridizes freely and innumerable varieties have been bred since it was first domesticated. Today corn comes in all shapes, sizes, colours and textures: some mostly starchy varieties, some soft, some hard, some sweet, some long, some short and round, some with large kernels others with tiny ones, some blue, some white, some yellow or red.

Although the variety appears sheer endless, there are only about five basic types of corn, the varieties are subspecies of these basic types.

(white to yellow),so called because the kernels become indented as the cob matures. This is probably the most commonly grown corn as its uses are very versatile. Dent corn is used for oil, cereals and flour as well as for animal feed, its high cellulose content has also been used to create biodegradable plastics and absorbent material for diapers, the oil is also used in cosmetics, soaps and skin care products and for many other uses.
all colors; shrinks on drying. This type of corn has very hard kernels and is used for similar purposes as Dent corn.
is characterized by a hard outer skin and soft starchy center. This combination gives it its unique 'popability'
High sugar content. This is the familiar corn on the cob. Most of the carbohydrates in this variety come as sugars, which make it so tasty and sweet. Best enjoyed fresh as storage will slowly turn the sugars into starch.
Starchy with a waxy appearance, is used mainly in the Far East for its tapioca-like starch. It is also used as a stabilizing and thickening starch for food products and as an emulsifier for salad dressings. Other industrial uses included remoistening adhesives for gummed tape, in adhesives, and in the paper industry. It is also often used for animal feed.

Corn breeding has a long historyNew varieties of corn are continuously created. But today these are born in the test tubes of biotech labs. These modern cobs are no longer simply nourishment - thanks to the wonders of biotechnology and the magic of gene-manipulation they can now produce hormones and other substances that could be of value to the pharma industry. How the general population can be safeguarded from inadvertent consumption and subsequent, possibly dangerous effects on health and well being is a question nobody likes to ask. The germplasm bank for corn in Mexico has already been contaminated with genetically manipulated materials. And time and again there are cases reported of non-approved gene-manipulated corn that has reached the human food chain in the form of a harmless looking tortilla chip that caused severe 'allergic' reactions in the consumer. Corn is also at the center of another controversy - in search of renewable fuel sources researchers have turned to maize as a source of ethanol as a biofuel. This however is not considered a very good idea by the majority of poor farmers in Central America who would rather that corn, their staple nourishment, would continue to feed them instead of fuelling cars they can't afford to buy.

In the course of its domestication Corn has adapted so well to human needs that it has lost its ability to reproduce independently. Natural fertilization still occurs, but corn depends on humans for planting and tending to its needs. Corn is very nutritious and supplies about 20% of the world's food calories. However, a diet that is completely dominated by corn and corn derived products is likely going to be deficient in niacin (vitamin B3). Niacin deficiency can result in serious physical damage, which in its manifestation takes the form of 'Pellagra', a condition which is characterized by the 3 D's - diarrhoea, dermatitis and dementia (some say 4 D's and add 'death'). Interestingly, the lack of niacin in corn can be corrected by treating it with lye - a common practice among Native Americans. Such treatment results in a corn product known as hominy or Nixtamal. The process itself is referred to as nixtamalization, and derives from the Nahuatl word nixtamalli , meaning 'unformed corn dough', which is used as the basis of many corn products such as tamales, corn tortillas and masa. The process removes the pericarp or outer skin of the corn kernel. The Aztecs and Mayans routinely cooked their corn in lime water (calcium oxide) which improves its nutritional profile considerably: Niacin, which otherwise remains largely unavailable, is made accessible by the process of nixtamalization, calcium increases by 75% - 85% making it more easily digestible, and other minerals, such as iron, copper and zinc are also increased. Furthermore, nixtamalization also counteracts certain mycotoxins present in untreated corn. Fermentation of nixtamalized corn produces even more benefits: increased levels of riboflavin, protein and niacin in addition to amino acids, such as tryptophan and lysine.

Unfortunately this biochemical transformation was completely lost on the Spaniards, who brought corn back with them to the old world and introduced it to Africa, where it soon became an important food crop. However, the people who came to rely on it, but did not have the advantage of traditional knowledge to guide their use, soon became sick with niacin deficiency symptoms. Unfortunately for them, the importance of minerals and vitamins had yet to be discovered, so in Europe corn soon earned a reputation as a poor man's food, which might save one from starvation, but was not considered a wholesome food, even though countless generations of Native Americans had thrived on it.

Yam Kaax - Mayan Corn GodIn fact, the vast majority of Native American nations revere corn. It is closely associated with various creation myths throughout the Americas, which tell the story of how the people learned how to grow and use corn directly from the Corn God or Goddess him/herself. The Mayans revered this God as Yam Kaax, who is described in the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Mayans. Corn is linked to the very source of creation itself, for when the Gods decided to form the world, they prepared different brews from corn which were to provide strength and substance to their creation. They formed the first man and the first woman from white and yellow corn masa, which transformed into human flesh and blood.

And so it is to this day - corn is part of every meal, whether as chips, tostadas, tortillas or tamales. Even drinks are prepared from it. The Aztecs prepared a brew from corn starch and chocolate known as 'Atole', a kind of original 'hot chocolate', although it did not taste much like what we have come to associate with the term. Another drink made from corn is 'Chicha', originally a mildly alcoholic sacred brew used for ritual purposes, but now served at any and all occasions, especially at fiestas.

Grinding corn to make tortillas and making ChichaAccording to a Peruvian story the only two people that survived the deluge learned about corn from the 'Macaw Women'. Every day when they returned home in the evening they found a large pot filled with Chicha in their house. After this had been going on for some days one of the men decided to stay at home and hide to see where the mysterious brew was coming from. Soon after the other man had left, two red Macaw birds flew in, took off their feathers and revealed their female bodies, one an old hag, the other a young virgin. At once they started to chew some corn, spit it into the pot and finally fill the pot up with water - the traditional method of preparing Chicha. The man, being the possessive sort, jumped from his hiding place and grabbed one of the women by the hair - of course he caught the young one, while the old woman fled. Thus he came into possession not only of the first corn seeds, which he duly planted, but also of a wife. In Peru corn was associated with the sun, here personified as solar virgins. Chicha thus represented the essence of the sun's magical powers.

Throughout the Americas Corn silk, the familiar tassel of 'hair' at the end of the cob, was considered a valuable medicine. It generally supports the organs of the lower abdomen and was used to treat constipation, diarrhoea, urinary retention, bladder infection, as well as for infertility, menstrual pains and to strengthen the womb after childbirth. Although cornsilk is not 'official' in most of today's pharmacopoeias, except in China, it is still generally considered a useful remedy for conditions afflicting the bladder and kidneys and can flush out kidney and bladder gravel and small stones. It is regarded as a cleansing herb that has the ability to purify the blood and eliminate toxins. By virtue of its diuretic effect it can reduce blood pressure.

The Mayans considered their sacred plant a wholly medicinal food - when suffering from severe illness they would eliminate all other foods from the diet and let corn alone nourish the person back to health - so his flesh and blood could be renewed like it was when the Gods created the first man and the first woman.

Medicinal Uses:

Part used: silky 'hair' at the end of and surrounding the cob.

Constituents: allantoin, sterols, saponins, hordenine, plant acids, Vitamins C and K

Action: diuretic, demulcent, tonic,


Corn silk is a valuable remedy whether by itself or as an adjunct to other herbs to treat afflictions of the genito-urinary system. In particular it soothes the stinging pain of cystitis, can help to flash out gravel and small stones, relieves fluid retention and reduces the frequent urge to urinate in conditions such as prostatitis. By virtue of its diuretic effect it can also lower blood pressure. Native Americans have used it to treat infertility and menstrual pain. Externally the fresh silk has also been used to cleanse wounds. It may be a helpful addition to a blood cleansing herb mix. For bacterial bladder infections it is best used in conjunction with antiseptic herbs, such as Uva Ursi or Boldo leaves. Cornsilk also seems to have an indirect effect on the liver as it increases bile flow. This may also explain the native traditional use for this herb in the treatment of gallbladder stones. Increased bile flow also indirectly improves digestion and absorption of nutrients in the intestines.

Corn Recipes

Green Chili Corn Bread

Mix all together. Pour into well greased 9 x 9 inch pan. Bake at 350F. for 1 hour.

Blue Corn Dumplings

Boil the water and add the juniper water and salt. Add corn meal and knead until soft. Shape into thumb sized balls and drop into the boiling water. Cook for about 15-20 minutes. Remove and drain.

Serving Ideas : good with stews and heavy soups.

Hopis make the dumplings round in the winter and flat in the summer to avert bad weather.

Juniper Ash Water

Take the tips from several juniper twigs and place on a screen. (Make sure the screen is not plastic, vinyl or galvinized). The tips should not contain any woody parts of the branch. Light the tips and let ash settle on the screen. With a fine brush, (broom grass), carefully brush the ash though the screen. Store in an air tight container until ready to use.

To make juniper water, boil the water, remove from heat and add the ash. Steep 10-15 minutes and strain. Make only what is needed and use immediately as it does not keep.

External Links

A myriad uses of corn
Wikipedia on Corn

For questions or comments email:

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.