As American as Apple Pie

Sweet corn (Zea mays variety saccharata) is a sugary-seeded kind of maize, as the "saccharin" part of its scientific name indicates.

The old four-letter Anglo-Saxon word "corn" means grain of any kind, and except in the United States it does not refer specifically to Indian corn, Zea mays. The American Indian word "maize," however, is understood the world around, and even Americans are again learning to use it.

Maize apparently went through its first great period of development in the Andes, probably in southern Peru, where primitive, but not wild, forms are still grown by the Indians. No one has ever succeeded in finding wild maize or the wild parent from which maize first came.

Far back in prehistoric times, it is believed, somewhere in the lowlands to the east of the Andes, the unknown parent of maize gave rise to a new and distinct parent form through mutation, producing a kind of maize in which each kernel was completely enclosed in husks. That was so long ago that the Indians now have no name for it and it has never been found, though representations of it appear on ancient Peruvian pottery. This so-called pod corn later mutated to a form without husks around each seed.

Marriage of Two Grasses

While this maize was first developing into an important food crop in the Andean region, there probably was no maize in Central or North America. There was, however, growing wild in those areas a rather distinct relative of maize, now called Tripsacum, that may have arisen from the same member of the grass family that maize came from.

When the Indians from the Andes carried some of their primitive maize to Central America, it somehow became hybridized with this kindred plant, Tripsacum. This new hybrid persisted as a distinct kind of plant and has been named "teosinte."

Teosinte, a hybrid of which maize is one parent, became crossed with maize, and the descendants of this cross ultimately gave rise to several kinds of corn never known in the Andean region: pointed popcorn, dent corn (our commonest kind), flour corn, and flint corn. Thus the Central and North American forms of maize most likely developed; they are different to this day from the forms grown in Peru.

After the new type arose, presumably in what is now Guatemala, it was carried up into the present southwestern United States and thence north and east over the whole territory where maize is now grown in North America. Before the white man reached America, most Indian tribes commonly grew maize of one kind or another except sweet corn.

The sugary character in maize doubtless occurred innumerable times as a mutation, but many Indian tribes either disliked it and threw it away or had trouble in perpetuating it. It is harder to produce and preserve the seed of sweet corn than that of other forms.

A few tribes, among them the Hidatsa, Mandan, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, and Iroquois, have been known to grow sweet corn in North America, and apparently it was known in Peru in prehistoric as well as modern times. Yet it never became important even in North America until after the arrival of the white man.

The first published mention of sweet corn was in 1801, although later articles referred to it as having been obtained in 1779 from a tribe of Indians along the Susquehanna River.

There was little interest in sweet corn until about a hundred years ago, when seedsmen in the eastern United States first began to list one or two varieties. By the time of the Civil War a few more varieties had appeared, and from then onward its popularity in America has steadily increased.

Now there is a wide range of kinds of sweet corn, from little four-inch ears growing on plants only two-and-a-half feet high up to seven- or eight-inch ears on plants as tall as eight feet; white, yellow, purple kernels; white cobs, red cobs; ears with 8, 10, 12, or more rows of kernels-or with kernels not in rows at all. Among the best-known ordinary varieties are Golden Bantam, Country Gentleman, and Stowell's Evergreen.

Most Sweet Corn Now Is Hybrid Type

Our modern hybrid sweet corns, such as Golden Cross Bantam, Ioana, Marcross, and scores of others, were developed by painstaking effort. The basic discoveries concerning hybrid vigor were made more than 50 years ago, but it took numerous scientists and corn breeders some 20 years to put hybrid corn production on a profitable, practical basis.

Each lot of hybrid seed from which gardeners and farmers buy their seed to plant is the result of a controlled cross between two especially developed parents.

Most of the seed sweet corn planted now is of the hybrid type. Ninety-eight percent of the sweet corn grown for canning in the United States is hybrid.