What Are the Different Types of Maize Plants?

How many different types of maize or corn are there?
Maize varieties come in all colors

Maize, a popular cereal, is commonly known as Indian corn or simply corn, and it is a staple food for many people, including Latin Americans. There are six main types of maize plants: dent, flint, flour, waxy, pod, popcorn, and sweet corn. 

Origin of Maize

The history of maize can be a controversial topic, with scientists, archaeologists, and historians proposing different theories on the same, but they all agree on the origin. It is native to central Mexico, domesticated from a wild grass called teosinte approximately 9000 years ago. The teosinte has no close resemblance to the modern maize plant as it had smaller and fewer kernels that were more spaced. Each grain had a tough surrounding casing. 

While the modern-day maize is a descendant of the teosinte grass, it cannot survive without human care and intervention. It has a closely-packed kernel and does not exist in the wild. 

The Domestication 

Early Mexican farmers started domesticating by carefully picking the best and the largest kernels until they got the maize that people recognize today. The final product, modern-day maize, spread so fast for the following reasons. 

  • It was nutritious 
  • It was easy to store
  • Easy to carry 
  • Easy to grow and cultivate

Maize first spread downwards to Peru and beyond. It also spread to North America, and eventually, the native Americans incorporated it as part of their virtual diet. It became a staple food for various cultures in the Caribbean, North, and South America with time. Today maize is a staple food among diverse cultures of the world, including Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe, after spreading during the Columbian exchange. 

Maize botanical name 

Zea mays is the botanical name for maize and is a member of the Poaceae family or true grasses. 

Video – different types of corn (Maize)

Thought there was just one type of maize? Think again …

Maize Plant Characteristics

Maize is globally referred to as the queen of cereals due to its high genetic yield potential. It is the only edible cereal proven to grow in diverse seasons and ecologies and can be put to different uses. In addition, it comes in various types, including ordinary yellow or white corn, sweet corn, popcorn, or waxy corn. Here are some characteristics to help in identifying a maize plant. 

Maize Development cycle characteristics 

A typical maize plant develops about 18 to 22 leaves and grows silk approximately 55 days after emergence. It takes around 125 days to mature after emergence. The time intervals may vary depending on planting date, location, hybrid, environment, or climatic conditions. 

For example, an early maturing variety will grow through the growing stages faster than a late-maturing one. 

The growth stages include the following.

  • The emergence stages
  • The appearance of the first leaf collar
  • Development of third, seven, and ten leaf collars in that order
  • Tasseling which occurs about 2 to 3 days before silking
  • Silking- silk appears outside the husk to receive pollen grains for pollination
  • Physiological maturity takes place about 45 to 50 days after silking. At this point, all the kernels have reached a maximum dry weight and are ready for harvesting.
Characteristics of the maize plant
Maize or corn has distinct growing phases

Maize botanical characteristics 

Maize is an annual plant famous for its determination and whose height varies, ranging between less than 1 meter and 4 meters. It bears long, narrow, and opposing leaves alternating along the stem. 

Here are the botanical properties of maize plant parts. 

A maize plant bears three root types: advantageous roots, seminal, and brace or prop roots. A corn plant root may grow up to 60 cm in depth and laterally if the soil is suitable. 

The stem grows about 3 to 4 cm thick with relatively short internodes that are thicker near the plant’s base. The uppermost leaves on the stem are responsible for trapping light for photosynthesis. 

Maize Floral characteristics 

The plant is monoecious, meaning that it has a female flower separate from the male. The tassel is the male and appears at the tip of the plant a few days before the female to produce pollen in preparation for pollination.

Infographic – 5 top Maize varieties

Name some varieties of the maize plant
Corn, or maize, comes in many varieties

Varieties of Maize

While some people may believe that maize is the same, there are six wide varieties of this essential cereal plant. The following are the different varieties. 

Dent corn 

The central feature distinguishing dent corn from other varieties is its dent or depression on the kernel’s crown. Like different varieties, it is grown for human consumption but is primarily used as animal feed. It is a crossbreed of flour and flint corn, and it is less sweet and starchier than sweet types, which is why it is ideal for wet and dry milled.

Most dent corn types are yellow, but a few whites are costly in the dry milling sector.

Flint corn 

It is also called red, blue, or Indian corn, dominant in southern and central America. Its hard exterior is fit for both human consumption and animal feed. 

Sweet corn 

It is the only variety with more sugar and less starch. People mostly prefer to eat it fresh, from the cob, off the cob, or preserve it through canning or freezing for future use.

Here is a summary of the maize varieties.

Maize type Dominant area Common uses 
Dent corn Primarily grown in the United States Grown for human consumption but used as animal feed 
Flint corn It dominates central and southern America It is a coarse cornmeal ideal for grits, atole, and polenta, and sometimes it is toasted and ground to make pinole. 
Flour cornIt is the main variety in South America, especially in the Andean regionUsed for human consumption.
Sweet cornIt is mainly grown in Florida, Georgia, New York, California, and Washington  It is an ideal top-up in salads, soups and also a perfect pizza topping
Waxy corn Waxy corn is majorly grown in China and Southeast Asia. It is food in Asia. It is also a vital raw material globally in food industries, feedstuffs, paper-making, and textiles.

Uses of Maize

The following are some of the uses of maize.

  • It is a staple food across various cultures globally 
  • It is a perfect animal feed
  • The leaves, stover, and stalks are suitable for, chemical production, and forage
  • It is ideal for industrial products
  • It is used to make biofuel
  • It is also applied in the production of corn starch 
Biofuel is just one of the uses of the maize plant
Maize is used to make biofuel

Maize vs. corn-Is maize and corn the same?

Maize and corn are interchangeable terms referring to the same cereal, but the only difference is when each term is used. Corn is mainly a term in the North American English vocabulary, while maize is in British English vernacular. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Many questions arise every day in the quest to understand maize plants, varieties, and their uses. The following are some of the frequently asked questions and their responses. 

What Are the Characteristics of a Maize Plant?

You can quickly identify a maize plant from other food grasses like sorghum at its maturing stage when it produces tassels or pollen inflorescences and separate ears called ovuliferous inflorescences on the leafy stalk. The tassels pollinate the ears, and after fertilization, the ears yield kernels, maize seeds, or fruits. 

The following are more characteristics to identify a maize plant.

  • Its mature height ranges between 1 and 4 meters depending on the location, hybrid, and environmental or climatic conditions
  • It bears big, narrow leaves that are opposing and alternating along the length of the maize plant
  • The stem develops internodes that are relatively thicker at the base of the plant. It grows thick upwards and then tapers towards the tip. The maximum thickness is 3 to 4 cm
  • The internode that bears the ear is longitudinally grooved to give room for proper positioning of the cob
  • The lateral branches called shanks that protrude from the leaf axis bear the female inflorescences; cobs, or ears, while the male ones (tassels) grow at the end of the stem’s apex
  • It is a monoecious plant as it has separate female and male inflorescences
  • The maize plant is green while young but turns yellowish as the kernels mature, ready for harvesting 
  • It takes about 125 days after emergence to mature 

How Do You Grow a Maize Plant?

Growing maize is not a cheap venture, and it requires you to understand each step involved to avoid wasting your resources in vain. Below is the process for growing maize.

  1. Field selection 

Maize is a sub-tropical plant that requires a site below 140 m. any area above that altitude must face the sun and have well-draining soils.

  1. Bed preparation 

Maize is best drilled into uniform depths in moist soil. Before the end of April, all fields need to be ready and seeds planted before May. 

  1. Choose a variety

Consider your experience on what works for your field from the varieties you have already tried before.

Once you have chosen the best maize variety for your farm and grown it, you need to consider follow up care which includes;

  • Weed control 
  • Crop nutrition
  • Pests and diseases

What Is the Maize Plant Used For?

Each part of a maize plant is helpful in its way. All varieties of maize plants are fit for animal feed. It is also used for industrial purposes, especially in biodegradable forms. The maize stalks, leaves, and stovers are excellent for biofuel, forage, and chemical production.

Resources relating to Maize plant varieties

Varieties and planting of maize

Maize – International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

Maize Varieties – National Agricultural Advisory Services

Clarisse Walters
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