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ZEA mays

Image of Zea mays

Keith Weller, USDA/ARS



Botanical Name

ZEA mays

Plant Common Name


General Description

As one of the key grains that feeds the world today, corn is a vitally important plant. It also has an interesting history. Oddly enough, corn does not exist in the wild, and research supports that it is truly the result of human innovation. Modern corn has been traced back to the wild Central American grass teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis), which does not resemble cultivated corn. It is believed that over 2000 years mutants of this primitive maize were discovered, selected, and cultivated by Native American peoples. The first explorers brought corn to Europe and Africa where it quickly gained popularity.

Today hard or grain corn is the largest grain crop in the world, whether it's grown to feed livestock or to feed us with products like bread, chips, polenta, syrup or popcorn. The common garden variety sweet corn makes up a smaller percentage of corn grown for consumers but is much more desirable for the home gardener.

Corn is a warm season annual garden vegetable. The tall grassy plants will take off as soon as days and nights lose their chill. They develop tall stalks with long, thick arching green blades. Corn has two flower types; the pollen-producing male tassels and the seed-producing female flowers along the ears. The pollen in the tassels is carried by wind and shakes down on the distinctive silky threadlike stigmas of the corn ears. Once pollinated, the juicy sweet kernels develop. Sweet corn is typically harvested in mid to late summer and there are many varieties with white, yellow and peach-colored kernels. Colorful, ornamental Indian corn is a testament to the broad range of colors that can exist in hard varieties. These include blue, orange, red and near-black.

Most corn varieties ripen 65 to 75 days after sowing. It is essential to pick corn at its prime and store it properly. You can tell when an ear is ready when the kernels are full, plump and properly colored. Another test is to pierce a plump kernel with your nail. If it emits milky juice it is ready. When buying fresh corn at the store, you can always tell the freshest ears because these will have new white cuts at the base of the ear. Those with browning bases should be avoided because corn tends to get starchy and loses its sweetness with age.

Grow corn in full hot sun and fertile, nutrient-rich soil with good drainage. It grows best with intermittent watering. It is necessary to grow several rows of corn for both cross pollination and to get enough ears for the table. There are a number of diseases and pests that plague corn. Corn earworms are common as are nighttime raids from raccoons. The grotesque fungal disease called corn smut is another problem to watch for.

Corn is a must for the large warm-season veggie garden. There are lots of wonderful varieties to choose from and nothing makes the summer sweeter or tastier.


  • AHS Heat Zone

    12 - 5

  • Sunset Zone

    A1, A2, A3, H1, H2, 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24

  • Plant Type


  • Sun Exposure

    Full Sun

  • Height

    4'-15' / 1.2m - 4.6m

  • Width

    2'-4' / 0.6m - 1.2m

  • Bloom Time


  • Native To

    Hybrid Origin, North America, Central America, South America

Growing Conditions

  • Soil pH


  • Soil Drainage

    Well Drained

  • Soil type


  • Growth Rate

    Very Fast

  • Water Requirements

    Average Water

  • Habit


  • Seasonal Interest

    Spring, Summer, Fall

Ornamental Features

  • Flower Interest


  • Fruit Color

    White, Yellow, Light Yellow, Peach

  • Foliage Color (Spring)

    Green, Dark Green

  • Foliage Color (Summer)

    Green, Dark Green

  • Foliage Color (Fall)

    Green, Dark Green

  • Foliage Color (Winter)

    Green, Dark Green

  • Fragrant Flowers


  • Fragrant Fruit


  • Fragrant Foliage


  • Bark or Stem Fragrant


  • Repeat Bloomer


  • Showy Fruit


  • Edible Fruit


  • Showy Foliage


  • Foliage Texture


  • Foliage Sheen


  • Evergreen


  • Showy Bark


Special Characteristics

  • Usage

    Edible, Herb / Vegetable

  • Sharp or Has Thorns


  • Invasive


  • Self-Sowing