By Jade Greene
To celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we decided to sit down with an ear of corn to learn a little bit about them. From mysterious roots in Mexico thousands of years ago to becoming the biggest crop in the USA, corn has come far and has some thoughts about that.
Q: Thank you for meeting with me today! How about an ice breaker, can you tell me one interesting fact about yourself?
A: My pleasure, glad to be here! This is a mind blowing fact – you know those silks on an ear of corn? Each one of those is connected to a potential kernel of corn (an egg). Each silk reaches up to collect the pollen released by neighboring corn plants, which travels down the silk tube and fertilizes the egg inside of the husk! This grows into a kernel. Isn’t that cool?
Q: Absolutely, I don’t know of many other plants that do that… Where do you come from?
A: Ha! I don’t even know this! I do not have any wild ancestors that look like I do. My best guess is that I was domesticated about 9,000 years ago in south to central Mexico from a plant like teosinte. After I came on the scene, I spread through trade and was grown all throughout North and South America by the many indigenous peoples. I have been in North America for about 4,000 years and people have been growing me in your neck of the woods for over 1,000 years! Eventually, colonizers came and brought me back to Europe, where I continued to spread and even more varieties were created. I’m basically everywhere now!
Q: Fascinating! How did the Indigenous people grow you?
A: Interesting you ask that because I can only grow with the help of people. I can’t scatter my seeds to the wind and when I sprout on the ground, my seedlings get all tangled up and die (sad face) so I need people! I grow best in a mound or a hill, you plop in a kernel and let me go. Some but not all Native Americans, including the Lenni Lenape, developed a growing technique where they plant me alongside climbing beans and squash, called the Three Sisters. I am like the trellis for the beans, the beans provide stability for me and add nutrients to the soil (nitrogen fixation), and the squash leaves keep the soil cool and weeds down – we all work together to create a complete nutritious meal that protects the soil. How cool is that? We all needed each other and thrived together.
Q: Where did you get your name?
A: I have many names. From mahis by the Taino people (AKA maize) to xàskwim right here by the Lenni Lenape people here in Bucks County. Today in the USA, I mostly go by corn. Corn means “grain” and it is given to the most important grain a country grows, for example, historically, the word “corn” was used to mean “wheat” in England, before I became such a prominent crop. So you could say I am pretty important.
Q: What makes you so great, besides your name?
A: I am very good for you! I provide quite a bit of protein, fiber and Vitamin C. Combined with the three sisters, I made a perfect meal. Ever try succotash? That’s a Native American dish, the name comes from msickquatash, a Naragasett word that means “broken corn.”
I am also very versatile. My indigenous growers use me in a variety of ways from right off the cob, to popcorn, to grinding into flour for baking and tortillas. Some peoples grinded me with wood ash, unlocking my proteins. You can even eat my stalk like candy!
Having said that, many modern food companies have also realized I am great in processed foods as well from syrups to starch to high fructose corn syrup. The list goes on and on… Processing me these days takes temperature extremes, chemical injections, and more. These heavily processed additives are added to many baked goods and drinks and tend to not be very healthy.
Q: This is a tricky question to ask, so I’ll just say it: how do you feel about the current state of corn farming in the United States, specifically monocultures and GMO crops?
A: This is indeed a difficult and sad question. From my beginnings in Mexico to today – things sure have changed. I am glad that many more people can enjoy me but I am indeed dismayed about the farming practices in use. Branches of my family have been manipulated and changed so much that I barely recognize them. Acre after acre of land that used to be respectfully tended by the Native Americans is now a single monoculture of me, sprayed with harmful chemicals like glyphosate (which is transferred my kernels and anyone who eats them) and tilled until the soil is almost barren and lifeless and my seeds no longer contain the nutrients they once did. I miss my sisters growing by my side.
Most corn grown in the USA today is actually grown for animal feed not people. Oddly enough, cows can not digest corn well and this leads to less nutritious milk and meat.
It all truly makes me sad – there are over 200 heirloom varieties of corn but most people would never know this. All they can find is yellow or white – (pause) in the end, I am glad I can help feed people in this challenging world. So many people go hungry and I can help.
Q: Let’s end on a positive note, can you tell me more about these 200 varieties of corn?
A: Now that is something that makes me happy! So many people around the Americas are preserving the diversity of corn. I recently learned that Lenapes are planting the saved heirloom seeds from their ancestors, a beautiful blue sweet corn. The seeds were carried from the Northeast, all the way to Oklahoma, and are coming home to be planted by indigenous hands in indigenous soil, in a process known as rematriation. It brings me joy and hope.
Q: Well that was absolutely delightful, I appreciate your time.
A: Thank you – I really enjoyed this as well! Please try to enjoy the diversity of corn and maybe even make some husk art like a wreath or doll!
Visualizing how corn is pollinated. Image from “Corn is Maize” by Aliki
Teosinte, corn’s ancestor. Image from Two Row Times.
Drawing of maize, climbing beans, and winter squash planted together, the Three Sisters. Image from wikipedia.
Most processed foods contain corn in some form.
Lenni Lenape heirloom blue pulling corn, from Experimental Farm Network.
The amazing diversity of corn!