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Corn, also known as maize, is one of the most successful cereal grasses of all time. It has been under human cultivation for over 10,000 years and has spread itself into every niche of commercial agriculture. Like most grain producing grasses, corn is an annual that must be replanted each year. While the plant originates in the New World, it is grown all over the world and used for a staggering array of products. It is far more productive than most cereal crops and able to sustain a higher population than relatives like wheat, rye, or rice.
Corn grows in warm weather and usually matures in late summer. The stalks can grow between 3 feet (1 meter) and 20 feet (6 meters) tall, depending upon the cultivar. At one point, there were thousands of varieties in production, but these numbers have since dwindled to less than 100 hardy, predictable varieties with large fleshy kernels. Corn grows in ears, tight clusters of kernels around a central core or cob that is covered in a leafy husk. It has been bred in such a way that it has difficulty reproducing without human assistance, thanks to this husk.
Archaic forms of corn would be unrecognizable to modern consumers. Its ancestor was probably a small grass with ears approximately 2 inches (5 centimeters) long. People determined to eke some sort of nutritional value out of the grass bred it to the plant we are familiar with today, and it quickly diffused all over the United States. It would have been popular among early Americans because it was nutritious, easy to cultivate, tasty, and high yielding.
As a commercial crop, corn is everywhere. It is one of the most intensively genetically modified crops, which has led to serious discussion and comment both inside and outside the agricultural industry. Corn is also one of the most grown crops globally, with thousands of acres being dedicated around the world to high intensity production.
Corn is also used in everything imaginable. In addition to being eaten straight off the cob or popped, it is used to manufacture corn syrup, a wildly successful artificial sweetener. It is also used to synthesize a number of compounds used in manufacturing processes, such as corn starch, which is in everything from cardboard to biodegradable containers. The plant is extensively cultivated to produce animal feed, with all feedlot animals consuming pounds of the crop each day. In addition, it is used in the manufacture of alcohol and ethanol, a commonly used alternative fuel.
Corn is one of nature's more amazing success stories, beginning life as a nutritionally useless plant and coming to dominate the diets of humans and the animals they eat. Almost all packaged foods contain products from this plant, no small accomplishment for a humble weed.