Zea mays



Zea mays

L. 1753

pronounced: ZEE-uh maze

(Poaceae — the grass family)

common names: maize, corn

Zea would appear to be the Greek word ζεα (zea), a shortened form of ζεια I, a coarse grain used as fodder for horses; mays probably has the same derivation as maize, which comes from the Haitian Spanish word maíz, borrowed from the indigenous Taino name for the plant. I have also seen suggestions that Zea means ‘source of life’ (perhaps from Zeus, a name of Jupiter?), and that mays means ‘our mother’.

Maize is a grass domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The Aztecs and Mayans cultivated it in numerous varieties throughout central and southern Mexico, to cook or grind it in a process known as ‘nixtamalization’, described below. Later the crop spread through much of the Americas. After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, it was carried back to Europe and introduced to the rest of the world through trade.

Maize stems superficially resemble bamboo canes, and the internodes can reach 20 – 30 cm in length. It has a distinct growth form, the lower leaves being like broad flags, 50 – 100 cm long and 5 – 10 cm wide; the stems are erect, conventionally 2 – 3 m in height, with many nodes, casting off flag-leaves at every node. Under these leaves and close to the stem grow the ears of corn. These are the female inflorescences, tightly covered over by several layers of leaves, and so closed-in by them to the stem that they are often not easily seen until the emergence of the pale yellow silks from the leaf whorl at the end of the ear. These silks are elongated stigmas, and are fertilized by the pollen from the tassel, the male inflorescence at the top of the plant. When the tassel is mature and the conditions are suitably warm and dry, anthers on the tassel dehisce and release pollen. The pollen is dispersed by the wind, and falls within a few metres of the tassel. Each silk may become pollinated to produce one kernel of maize.

Young ears may be consumed raw, with the cob and silk, but as the plant matures the cob becomes tougher and the silk dries to inedibility. By the end of the growing season, the kernels dry out and become difficult to chew without being cooked to a tender state by boiling in water. Modern farming techniques in developed countries usually rely on dense planting, which produces one large ear per stalk.

When maize was first introduced into other farming systems than those used by the native American peoples, it was welcomed with enthusiasm for its productivity. However, as it became a staple diet in places like southern Africa (where it is called mealies) malnutrition soon arose. This was a mystery, since these types of malnutrition were not normally seen among the indigenous Americans. It was eventually discovered that these indigenous peoples had learned to soak the maize in an alkali-water – made with ashes by North Americans and with lime (calcium oxide) by the Mesoamericans. This liberated the B-vitamin niacin, the lack of which was causing the condition, known as pellagra. This is the process mentioned earlier, known as ‘nixtamalization’. Pellagra was also categorized by protein deficiency, and, although nixtamalization was found to increase somewhat the availability of the missing proteins, the indigenous Americans had also learned to balance their consumption of maize with beans and other protein sources such as amaranth and chia, as well as with meat and fish.

The maize plant is a very popular food plant with caterpillars, including those of:

      • the Beet Webworm Spoladea recurvalis;
      • the Corn Ear Worm Helicoverpa armigera;
      • the Asian Corn Borer Ostrinia furnacalis;
      • the Australian Native Budworm Helicoverpa punctigera;
      • the Beet Armyworm Spodoptera exigua;
      • the Black Cutworm Agrotis ipsilon;
      • the Light Brown Apple Moth Epiphyas postvittana;
      • the Hairy Caterpillar Creatonotos gangis;
      • the Pink Scavenger Pyroderces rileyi;
      • the Brown or Pink Cutworm Agrotis munda;
      • the Sugarcane Stem Borer Bathytricha truncata; and
      • the Oriental Cutworm Mythimna separata.


Photographs taken 2010, in a roadside garden in Birt Street, Picnic Bay, & in 2015
Page last updated 28th April 2019