It is somehow fitting that November is Native American Heritage Month, given that the greatest gift Native People gave to agricultural history was the corn their agronomists developed over thousands of years.
Of course, it’s also the month we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday with its origin back in the 1620s when a ragtag group of religious separatists held such a celebration in New England to thank God for their survival. They’d have been more honest and accurate if they’d thanked the Native People who showed them how to plant corn, and whose stores of the grain probably pulled them through that first year of near starvation.
The value corn holds for the nation is clear during this season of the year, especially, as farmers all over the Midwest hustle to get their fields harvested while the weather holds. Sometimes in 24 hour a day shifts, self-propelled combines work the fields picking, husking, and shelling corn kernels from the ears. When the on-board bins are full, they’re off-loaded into trucks or wagons waiting on the headlands. From the field, the golden harvest may be stored in bins on the farm, hauled to a grain elevator, or taken directly to the Illinois Waterway, the modern incarnation of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, where its loaded on barges for shipment south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there all over the world.
Corn is pretty common stuff these days. We pop it on cool evenings or to enjoy a movie at home, we boil sweet ears and enjoy them with butter during the summer, and we consume it in hundreds of products as starch or a sweetener. We even use alcohol made from it as fuel in our cars and trucks.
But as I noted above, for something so common, it’s mysterious stuff. The scientific name for corn is Zea mays, and was called maize by Native Americans. It had been grown and genetically modified for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in North and South America. By then, it had become the major source of vegetable food for the peoples of the Americas.
The Europeans found that corn was a wonderful plant. It produces far more grain per seed kernel than almost any other, and the grain it produces is very nutritious. It’s likely that a store of corn the Pilgrims dug up after they landed in 1620 was mainly responsible for their survival during their first brutal winter in New England. That they stole the corn from its rightful owners—the local Indians who grew and harvested it—was a harbinger of the way the two peoples would interact for the next 300 years.
There are five great subdivisions of corn: Pop corn, sweet corn, flour, flint, and dent. Popcorn, we all know. It has the interesting characteristic of turning itself inside out when heat is applied thanks to the extremely tough coating of its kernels. Flint corn has relatively small, hard, smooth kernels, while dent is the most familiar having relatively large kernels with dented (thus the name) crowns. Sweet corn is a type of dent with a genetic modification that prevents some of the sugar produced in the kernel from being converted into starch. Flour corn, too, is a form of dent with a very soft starchy kernel easily ground into flour. There are also a couple of other minor varieties, waxy and pod corn, grown in some parts of the world today. Pod corn, in fact, is a sort of throwback to what scientists believe is closer to the original primitive perennial corn.
In fact, scientists are still arguing about exactly what corn is descended from. Duke University researcher Mary Eubanks believes enterprising and observant Native American farmers developed corn some thousands of years ago by interbreeding two varieties of wild grasses. Eubanks believes that Eastern gamagrass, and Zea diploperennis, a perennial variety of teosinte (a tall annual grass found in Mexico) were crossbred to create the original maize that started the Native Americans’ agricultural revolution. The apparent problem with all the supposed ancestors of corn is that none of them have cobs on which the kernels form. Figuring out how to get from cobless bunches of kernels to kernels forming on a cob is the big problem nobody’s been able to solve. At least so far.
Whatever its origins, corn seems to have emerged in the Mexican highlands or perhaps in Guatemala, and later spread all over North and South America.
Corn, it turns out, is uniquely suited for genetic manipulation. Kernels were originally planted two or three to a hill rather than broadcast like wheat, oats, and other small grains in Old Europe. And ears of corn were harvested one at a time. That meant an observant farmer knew exactly which seeds produce the best crops.
Corn is also somewhat unique in that a genetic cross shows up in the first generation. That’s why gardeners are strongly advised not to plant a stand of decorative Indian corn next to the sweet corn they plan to eat.
Corn arrived in the Fox Valley and the rest of Illinois about 600 A.D. and quickly became the basis on which several Native American cultural traditions were based. Even at that early date, the state’s broad river valleys with their rich alluvial soils produced bumper crops.
Corn was growing everywhere plants could grow when the Europeans arrived in North America in the 15th Century.
European settlers worked to further improve the native corn varieties by intensive cross breeding. It was eventually found that a cross between New England flints and southerly dents created a hybrid that out-yielded either of the two ancestor varieties. That original cross was the basis for the dozens of different hybrid varieties that grow in fields all over the Fox Valley today.
Especially during this month, when you drive around the countryside and see those fields of corn being harvested, with the grain sold to people in every corner of the globe, you might give a tip of the hat to whichever brilliant ancient Native American farmer came up with that original cross of whatever ancient strains of grass that led to corn’s creation.