Corn (Zea mays) originated in North America, where it became one of the most important food sources for early civilizations. Many years of corn cultivation have produced a plant that cannot survive on its own in the wild but finds uses in human civilizations as a food source and ingredient in such diverse products as plastics, paints, textiles and chemicals. Corn's taxonomy reveals some unexpected relatives.
At the broadest level of classification, corn belongs to the plant kingdom. Members of the plant kingdom synthesize their own food from sunlight, while rigid cell walls give them their upright shape in the absence of a skeleton. Because they can convert light energy into chemical energy, plants like corn act as primary producers, making energy from sunlight available to other organisms in the form of sugar.
The word flower often calls to mind colorful, showy blossoms, certainly not the bland brown tassels of the corn plant. Because corn uses the wind for pollination, it doesn't need to pour energy into developing brightly colored and sweet-scented flowers to attract pollinators like butterflies and bees. Corn plants produce separate male and female flowering parts. A tassel at the center of the plant -- the male structure -- produces pollen, while the silks snag the pollen from the wind. Within minutes, the pollen begins growing a tube into the corn silk to deliver the sperm cells inside the pollen grain to the flower's ovary. (See References 4)
Within the flowering plant division, plants fall into one of two classes: monocots or dicots. Corn belongs to the monocot class. Corn embryos have only a single leaf or cotyledon in their seed. Once the plant grows, the leaf veins form parallel to each other, and the vascular tissue is scattered throughout the stem rather than organized in a uniform pattern. Other monocot plants include bananas, lilies and palm trees.
Within the monocot class, corn belongs to the grass family Poaceae. Although, on the surface, corn doesn't seem to bear much resemblance to the grasses familiar from the lawn and garden, it does show the traits required for membership in this family. Grasses have round, hollow stems, and the leaves of the grass form sheaths around them. Flowers aren't showy and develop as spikelets, the tassel, in the case of corn. Seeds develop as small grains with hard outer coatings and no fruit covering to encourage dispersal by animals.
Corn belongs to the genus Zea, the final level of classification before the species level. Zea includes five species, four of which grow wild in Central America. Members of the Zea genus share the silky appendages to their female flowers and the formation of plump grains as seeds. The species Zea mays further subdivides into hundreds of varieties and cultivars grown to fulfill corn's many functions.
- Iowa State University; Origin, History, and Uses of Corn (Zea mays); Lance Gibson, et al.; January 2002
- University of Michigan: The Flow of Energy -- Primary Production to Higher Trophic Levels
- The Ohio State University; Corn Pollination -- An Overview; Peter Thomison
- The Ohio State University: Poaceae (Graminae)
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