2.3 A world of corn

Maize was unknown outside the New World before the sixteenth century. Because of its ability to grow in diverse climates, maize spread rapidly to the rest of the world and became the staple it is today.

Corn is used in thousands of every day products from cosmetics and crayons to ethanol fuel.

The success of maize worldwide can be attributed to the following:

Adaptation — Contemporary varieties of maize grow in many different environmental conditions: from sea level to 11,000 feet and from 5 to 170 inches of precipitation annually.

Variability in appearance — Ears and kernels display a diverse range of sizes, colors, and endosperm textures. There are thousands of varieties of corn to choose from in seed catalogs: open-pollenated, heirloom, hybrid, and even genetically modified. Variability in kernel shape, size, and color, as well as differences in ear size, demonstrates the incredible diversity in maize.

Kernels showing endosperm type: pop, flint, flour, dent and sweet corn (left to right). Most corn varieties can be divided into five types based on endosperm texture, or the amount of hard versus soft starch in the kernel. Each type varies in its ratio of hard (dark) to soft (white) starch and sugar. The seed embryo is located at the base of the kernel.

Versatility — Products range from cereal and sweeteners to fuel. Maize may be stored as dried grain, liquid sweeteners, or alcohol. Maize can be eaten boiled, roasted, popped, or ground.

Genetic diversity is important in adapting to a wide variety of environments and conditions. Hopi farmers have at least 17 locally adapted varieties of corn. This diversity allows plants to adjust to the arid environment of the region and reduce the risk of crop failure.