Residents who cross the A2 towards Bifrons Hill at Patrixbourne or drive past the Black Robin towards Kingston may notice fields of Maize growing beside the road. This tall green leafy plant forms a very recognisable dense crop 6 – 8 feet high producing a head of yellow corn seed 6 – 9 inches long called a cob.
The known history of Maize dates back at least 2,500 years when the native peoples of South America began using it for food. Originally the cobs were only 1 inch long, but by a process of selective propagation and some highly advanced farming methods, indiginous farmers like the Mayans developed the plant to a size closer to its current form.
Although Maize is the correct term for the plant, in many countries around the world it is simply called corn and used in cooking (cornflakes, popcorn, cornflour) and also for corn syrup a sweetener used in all kinds of foodstuffs from cakes to fizzy drinks. Maize is also the main ingredient of Bourbon Whiskey. The cob of sweeter varieties can be cut straight from the plant and sold as a raw vegetable, known in the UK as ‘sweetcorn’ or ‘corn on the cob’. However, most of the crop grown in the UK today is Forage Maize grown as an excellent food stuff for farm animals.
In the last few decades Maize has been grown increasingly for the purpose of producing Ethanol, an alcoholic bio-fuel which can be used as a green form of energy to run motor vehicles. This usage accounts for some 60% of the annual American farm crop. 1.5 gallons of ethanol gives the equivalent of 1 gallon of petroleum, but they are usually blended together before being sold at the petrol pumps. Most modern cars can run on a blend of 10% ethanol/90% petroleum spirit, but in Brazil, where they grow lots of Maize, it is law that petrol at the pumps must contain 25% ethanol, so their cars are adapted for that mixture.
Other developments for Maize as a bio-fuel include the use of the whole cob in corn stoves, which work rather like wood stoves but produce less carbon emissions, and in Germany bio-tech engineers are pioneering the use of Maize to produce clean gas for central heating systems and bio-diesel for lorries and buses.
If all this seems rather…well… amazing, there’s more! It has been discovered that Maize is no ordinary plant, its evolution is advanced. Categorised by scientists as a C4 plant, it is in some ways more evolved than 97% of the others which are termed C3 plants. What this means is that Maize grows in a more efficient way than most other crops: it assimilates carbon dioxide faster, it needs less nitrogen (fertiliser) to grow, it needs vastly less water than other common crops and it can survive in hotter more arid climates. This is great news for a world which faces global warming and countries which face shortages of fresh water.
So Maize really is astonishing: it’s a grain, from which we can make flour, bread and corn flakes; it contains five times the protein of potatoes; we can feed our animals with it; we can use it to power our cars and heat our homes and it grows using less water in places where other plants just won’t grow. The economic and environmental potential of Maize is just being discovered: we know not what the future holds, but somehow I rather suspect we may see more amazing Maize in our local fields in future.