While nurturing, observing, measuring, and graphing corn plants growing in two-liter soda bottles in their GrowLab, Dianna Johnson's third graders in San Gabriel, CA, became curious about this "a-maize-in" grass. With their indoor corn patch as a backdrop, students worked in research groups to explore the rich history of this authentically American crop, then created exhibits for a classroom corn museum. Student guides treated visiting classrooms to student-made Indian clay popcorn popping vases, a grist mill, corn jewelry, cornhusk dolls, cornstarch packing material, a map illustrating the origins of corn, cornmeal pounding, and a display of the physics of popcorn's pop!
"In addition to the links to science and nutrition, I was amazed at how much history the students were able to explore via this one crop," says Dianna. "We all discovered a lot about the key roles corn played for different peoples throughout history. After watching the fourth graders successfully raise corn in a bucket outside, my class is eager to plant their own corn patch this spring."
Although you probably can't grow corn all the way to maturity in your indoor classroom garden, this gift that the Native Americans shared with the world can provide a centerpiece for understanding the close links between culture and horticulture, studying plant growth and needs, exploring Native American agriculture, even investigating plant diversity, pollination, and genetics.
The Grass That Changed History
By the time Columbus had landed in the New World, corn had already been cultivated by the indigenous peoples for more than 3,000 years. Some 7,000 years ago, in fact, it's believed that early farmers in Mexico cross-pollinated different wild grasses, saved seeds from the best plants, and eventually discovered a new type of grain. These early farmers selected the best seeds from each harvest to save for next year's crops, learned which crops grew well together, and designed sophisticated corn-growing systems.
Corn became a staple crop of the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan civilizations, and these people honored and revered maize as a live-giving gift from the Creator. Many Native American cultures had corn gods, corn mothers, corn maidens, special corn-sowing dances, prayers for sprouting seed, harvest festivals of thanks, and wore popcorn as jewelry and in ceremonial headdresses. The people developed many ways to preserve and use corn, and even devised some of the earliest calendars just to keep track of their corn planting and harvesting schedules.
When the first starving colonists arrived in North America, they were introduced to this versatile food. At the first Thanksgiving, in fact, an Iroquois Indian is said to have brought a deerskin bag of popped corn as a gift. Before long, Colonial families learned to grow and incorporate corn into their diets in a wide range of ways -- even eating popcorn with cream and sugar for breakfast! As it had helped Native American peoples flourish, corn helped the newcomers from Europe establish themselves in America.
Although the U.S. today produces 40 percent of all corn grown in the world, only a small fraction is eaten by people. Much is fed to livestock and the rest is used in ways unimaginable to the first farmers, to make corn syrup, cornstarch, oil, meal, corn whiskey, and other products; and to process in different forms into cardboard, crayons, fireworks, wallpaper, chewing gum, shoe polish, and even a fuel called ethanol. More than a thousand modern items come from corn!
Although there are thousands of varieties of corn, only a few uniform, high-yielding hybrids are widely planted. In the 1970s, in fact, more than 70 percent of our corn was planted with only six varieties. But this dependence on so few varieties proved foolish when a new strain of fungus appeared and obliterated massive amounts of acreage of identically susceptible plants.
Over generations of selecting and saving seeds, Native American farmers developed hundreds of unique varieties of corn in a wide range of colors (white, red, purple, turquoise) adapted for different climates, foods, and ceremonial uses. The corn varieties they developed were also well-adapted to their ecological farming practices. As new "improved" hybrid varieties came into use, adapted for large-scale, chemically dependent agriculture, old varieties tended to fall out of use. But these diverse older varieties represent a rich storehouse of unique, potentially useful genetic information.
Increasingly, individuals and organizations are collecting and preserving traditional Native American corn varieties. One such organization has offered to send seeds from several old popcorn varieties to schools wanting to participate in preserving genetic diversity. Participating gardeners are asked to grow the corn varieties (isolating them from other corn to keep them from cross pollinating), then save some seed to return to be shared with other gardeners.