Not the Phyto-Philes: Corn

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Tragedy has struck at the Post Office. Our loyal, faithful, and supremely talented wildlife artist, Willem, is having computer difficulties. Since he's down in South Africa, we haven't been able to send a tech team. While we're waiting for local relief to fill in the gap, Your Editor has volunteered to help with the nature photography.

Stop groaning, and be nice. I don't have any exotic plants in my backyard, just a struggling young apple tree, some blueberry bushes, and a garden that has yielded, so far, 3 peppers, one miniature cucumber, and two solitary green beans. The deer that invade town at night ate our tomato plants. This is a village under siege.

And yes, I hope Willem gets back soon, too.

Not the Phyto-Philes: Corn

A field of maize at sunset.Ears of corn (maize) growing.

This is what is known locally as a 'cornfield'. What's growing here is maize, whose scientific name is Zea mays. It comes in a number of varieties: dent, flint, pod, popcorn, flour, and sweet. Most of the corn in this field is of the dent variety, which is the most popular commercially. There is some sweet corn in the field, but it's planted deep into the field, to discourage marauding deer, the plague of Pennsylvania. Neighbours desiring some of the coveted sweet corn are given detailed directions, but must fight off heat and insects to attain the prize.

There is no popcorn in this field. However, popcorn is sometimes planted in the Deep South, at the ends of cotton rows. In August, when the popcorn ripens, temperatures in Mississippi cotton fields can reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit or more. At that point, loud noises can be heard from the cotton fields. This is due to popcorn popping in situ, much to the amusement of small children.

Maize dates back to prehistoric times in Mesoamerica, and fed New World tribal peoples for millennia before being discovered by early European settlers. North American tribes shared the secret of successful cultivation of the sacred 'Three Sisters': squash, maize, and pole beans. The practice of companion planting   – growing the three plants together – is a sustainable technique far in advance of its time. The nitrogen-fixing beans produce nutrients for the maize, whose sturdy stem supplies a pole for the bean to climb. The squash, a vine, spreads along the ground, shading it and providing natural weeding, while its leaves create a moist, natural microclimate. Northeast US fishing people also planted a few rotten fish under each Three Sisters mound to give it extra fertilizer. The result is nourishing, ecologically sound, does not contribute to global warming, and doesn't require a lot of work.

This cornfield does require some work, such as initial ploughing, planting, fertilization, and harvesting. The modern era has little to teach the ancient Mesoamericans in this respect. Farmers in Pennsylvania watch the corn growing: the rule of thumb is that a successful cornfield must be 'knee-high by the Fourth of July'. If it is, then one can expect a bountiful harvest in September. The ears can be roasted, grilled, or boiled. Alternatively, the kernels can be cut off the ear. Corn can be frozen or canned, or dried to use as animal fodder.

A field of maize in late summer.
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