Maize Anatomy and the Anatomy of a Maze

Commonly known as corn throughout much of North America, maize is a distinctive emblem of the harvest season. It is one of the most economically important crops in the world (the third most important cereal after rice and wheat) and has scads of uses from food to feed to fuel. The story of its domestication serves as a symbol of human ingenuity, and its plasticity in both form and utility is a remarkable example of why plants are so incredible.

The genus Zea is in the grass family (Poaceae) and consists of five species: Z. diploperennis, Z. perennis, Z. luxurians, Z. nicaraguensis, and Z. mays. Maize is the common name of Zea mays subsp. mays, which is one of four Z. mays subspecies and the only domesticated taxon in the genus. All other taxa are commonly and collectively referred to as teosintes.

The domestication of maize, apart from being an impressive feat, has long been a topic of research and a challenging story to tease apart. The current understanding is that maize was first domesticated around 9000 years ago in the Balsas River valley in southern Mexico, the main progenitor being Zea mays subsp. parviglumis. It is astonishing how drastically different in appearance teosintes are from modern day maize, but it also explains why determining the crop wild relative of maize was so difficult.

Teosinte, teosinte-maize hybrid, and maize - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Teosinte, teosinte-maize hybrid, and maize – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Teosintes and maize both have tall central stalks; however, teosintes generally have multiple lateral branches which give them a more shrubby appearance. In teosinte, each of the lateral branches and the central stalk terminate in a cluster of male flowers; female flowers are produced at the nodes along the lateral branches. In maize, male flowers are borne at the top of the central stalk, and lateral branches are replaced by short stems that terminate in female flowers. This is where the ears develop.

Ears – or clusters of fruits – are blatantly different between teosintes and maize. To start with, teosinte produces a mere 5 to 12 fruits along a short, narrow cob (flower stalk). The fruits are angular and surrounded in a hard casing. Maize cobs are considerably larger both in length and girth and are covered in as many as 500 or more fruits (or kernels), which are generally more rounded and have a softer casing. They also remain on the cob when they are ripe, compared to teosinte ears, which shatter.

Evolutionary biologist, Sean B. Carroll, writes in a New York Times article about the amazing task of “transform[ing] a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop.” These “early cultivators had to notice among their stands of plants variants in which the nutritious kernels were at least partially exposed, or whose ears held together better, or that had more rows of kernels, and they had to selectively breed them.” Carroll explains that this “initial domestication process which produced the basic maize form” would have taken several hundred to a few thousand years. The maize that we know and love today is a much different plant than its ancestors, and it is still undergoing regular selection for traits that we find desirable.

Female inflorescence (or "ear") of Zea mays subsp. mays - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Female inflorescence (or “ear”) of Zea mays subsp. mays – photo credit: wikimedia commons

To better understand and appreciate this process, it helps to have a basic grasp of maize anatomy. Maize is an impressive grass in that it regularly reaches from 6 to 10 feet tall and sometimes much taller. It is shallow rooted, but is held up by prop or brace roots – adventitious roots that emerge near the base of the main stalk. The stalk is divided into sections called internodes, and at each node a leaf forms. Leaf sheaths wrap around the entirety of the stalk, and leaf blades are long, broad, and alternately arranged. Each leaf has a prominent midrib. The stalk terminates in a many-branched inflorescence called a tassel.

Maize Anatomy 101 - image credit: Canadian Goverment

Maize Anatomy 101 – image credit: Canadian Government

Maize is monoecious, which means that it has separate male and female flowers that occur on the same plant. The tassel is where the male flowers are located. A series of spikelets occur along both the central branch and the lateral branches of the tassel. A spikelet consists of a pair of bracts called glumes, upper and lower lemmas and paleas (which are also bracts), and two simple florets composed of prominent stamens. The tassel produces and sheds tens of thousands of pollen grains which are dispersed by wind and gravity to the female inflorescences below and to neighboring plants.

Female inflorescences (ears) occur at the top of short stems that originate from leaf axils in the midsection of the stalk. Leaves that develop along this reduced stem wrap around the ears forming the husk. Spikelets form in rows along the flower stalk (cob) within the husk. The florets of these spikelets produce long styles that extend beyond the top of the husk. This cluster of styles is known as the silk. When pollen grains land on silk stigmas, pollen tubes grow down the entire length of the silks to reach the embryo sac. Successful fertilization produces a kernel.

The kernel – or fruit – is known botanically as a caryopsis, which is the standard fruit type of the grass family. Because the fruit wall and seed are fused together so tightly, maize kernels are commonly referred to as seeds. The entire plant can be used to produce feed for animals, but it is the kernel that is generally consumed (in innumerable ways) by humans.

There is so much more to be said about maize. It’s a lot to take in. Rather than delve too much further at this point, let’s explore one of the other ways that maize is used by humans to create something that has become another feature of the fall season – the corn maze.

Entering the corn maze at The Farmstead in Meridian, Idaho

Exploring the corn maze at The Farmstead in Meridian, Idaho

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Year of Pollination: Botanical Terms for Pollination, part two

“The stage is set for reproduction when, by one means or another, compatible pollen comes to rest on a flower’s stigma. Of the two cells within a pollen grain, one is destined to grow into a long tube, a pollen tube, that penetrates the pistil’s tissues in search of a microscopic opening in one of the ovules, located in the ovary. … The second of a pollen grain’s cells divides to become two sperm that move through the pollen tube and enter the ovule.” – Brian Capon, Botany for Gardeners

“Once pollination occurs, the next step is fertilization. Pollen deposited on the sticky stigma generates a fine pollen tube that conveys the sperm through the style to the ovary, where the ovules, or eggs, have developed. After fertilization, the rest of the flower parts wither and are shed as the ovary swells with seed development.” – Rick Imes, The Practical Botanist

Pollination tells the story of a pollen grain leaving an anther by some means – be it wind, water, or animal – and finding itself deposited atop a stigma. As long as the pollen and stigma are compatible, the sex act proceeds. In other words, the pollen grain germinates. One of the pollen grain’s cells – the tube nucleus – grows down the length of the style, forming a tube through which two sperm nuclei can travel. The sperm nuclei enter the ovary and then, by way of a micropyle, enter an ovule. Inside the ovule is the female gametophyte (also referred to as the embryo sac). One sperm nucleus unites with the egg nucleus to form a zygote. The remaining sperm nucleus unites with two polar nuclei to form a triploid cell which becomes the endosperm. The sex act is complete.

The illustration on the left includes the cross-section of a pistil showing the inside the ovary where pollen tubes have made their way to the ovules. The illustration on the right shows pollen grains germinating on a stigma and their pollen tubes begining to work their way down the style. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The illustration on the left includes the cross section of a pistil showing the inside of the ovary where pollen tubes have made their way to the ovules. The illustration on the right shows pollen grains germinating on a stigma and pollen tubes as they work their way down the style. (image credit: wikimedia commons)

The zygote divides by mitosis to become an embryo. The endosperm nourishes the development of the embryo. The ovule matures into a seed, and the ovary develops into a fruit. During this process, the remaining parts of the flower wither and fall away. In some cases, certain flower parts remain attached to the fruit or become part of the fruit. The flesh of an apple, for example, is formed from the carpels and the receptacle (the thickened end of a flower stem – peduncle – to which the parts of a flower are attached).

As the seed matures, the endosperm is either used up or persists to help nourish the embryonic plant after germination. Mature seeds that are abundant in endosperm are called albuminous. Examples include wheat, corn, and other grasses and grains. Mature seeds with endosperm that is either highly reduced or absent are called exalbuminous – beans and peas, for example. Certain species – like orchids – do not produce endosperm at all.

The cross section of a corn kernel showing the endosperm and the embryo (image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

The cross section of a corn kernel showing the endosperm and the embryo (image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

It is fascinating to consider that virtually every seed we encounter is the result of a single pollen grain making its way from an anther to a stigma, growing a narrow tube down a style, and fertilizing a single ovule. [Of course there are always exceptions. Some plants can produce seeds asexually. See apomixis.] Think of this the next time you are eating corn on the cob or popcorn – each kernel is a single seed – or slicing open a pomegranate to reveal the hundreds of juicy seeds inside. Or better yet, when you are eating the flesh or drinking the milk of a coconut. You are enjoying the solid and liquid endosperm of one very large seed.

Much more can be said about pollination and the events surrounding it, but we’ll save that for future posts. The “Year of Pollination” may be coming to an end, but there remains much to discover and report concerning the subject. For now, here is a fun video to help us review what we’ve learned so far:

 

Also, take a look at this TED talk: The Hidden Beauty of Pollination by Louie Schwartzberg

And finally, just as the “Year of Pollination” was coming to an end I was introduced to a superb blog called The Amateur Anthecologist. Not only did it teach me that “anthecology” is a term synonymous with pollination biology, it has a great series of posts called “A Year of Pollinators” that showcases photographs and information that the author has collected for various groups of pollinators over the past year. The series includes posts about Bees, Wasps, Moths and ButterfliesFlies, and Beetles, Bugs, and Spiders.