04 September 2011

Growing a bit of ancient history.

One of the reasons I love gardening is for the connection to history. My personal history of grandparents who gardened, but also the greater human history, those early gardeners who first realized they could take a bit of ground and make it into something called a garden. That is why, this spring, I planted these seeds.
You all know the seeds on the right. It is corn, of course, known scientifically as Zea mays. On the left we have... Zea mays, only this one goes about under the common name teosinte, and is the wild Mexican grass that Native American farmers started with to breed the corn we know today. When I requested these seeds, I knew they would look different, but I never expected it would be so dramatic!
This is them in my garden (please forgive the lousy picture) Teosinte on the left, again, with more stems, and looking more like a typical grass than the thick, single stem of the corn on the right.

And now, as summer winds down, my teosinte is beginning to make ears. Here they are:
I can't quite wrap my head around this. That little stack of seeds, those few brown silks... THAT was transformed by prehistoric gardeners, with no knowledge of genetics, into the huge beefy ears of corn with all its colors and shapes and sizes that we know today. Surely the greatest plant breeder the world has ever seen was some native American whose name we will never know.

Teosinte isn't particularly attractive, or edible, but I'm very glad I grew it this year. It makes me really take a moment to think about -- and be thankful for -- the amazing gardeners who created the plants that feed our world today.

18 comments:

Nannothemis (Julie Craves) said...

A couple of years ago I was able to visit the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve in Jalisco, Mexico. Zea diploperennis, the wild perennial maize, grew around the research station; the reserve was established to protect this endemic population. Such a humble-looking plant with such a dramatic and world-changing history.

Fairegarden said...

That is so cool, Joseph! You are spot on about the original plant breeder. A brilliant person, long ago.
Frances

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Wow... I'm glad that you grew it, too. I never would have guessed that the grassy looking plant on the left was the ancestor of our modern maize! Very cool to see.

Greensparrow said...

Julie,
How cool! I'd love to see it in the wild. It is amazing what an impact this little plant has had on the world.

Faire and Blackswamp,
Thanks!

Mary C. said...

Dude that is awesome! I didn't know you could buy those seeds here. And my Anthro major friend next to me just gave you a cheer :)

Zoe said...

Very cool, and timely for me... I am reading a book by Charles C. Mann called 1491, which talks about this grass (and the Americas before Columbus). Fascinating stuff. As one who enjoys experimenting with unusual plants, I'm curious where you got the seed?

Greensparrow said...

Mary and Zoe,
You are right, you can't just buy these seeds, at least that I know of. The nice side of spending time in academia is I have friends that hooked me up.
I'm not sure how many seeds I'll get from my plants, but if I have a good harvest, I'd be happy to share some with you. Be warned, however, that teosinte is a short day plant, so to get it to actually flower and set seed in my climate, I had to do the same trashcan trick I described for Dahlia imperialis in my last post. It is super fun to grow in any case.

Tom said...

The one thing I miss about academia was my ready access such fun plants. You have no idea how jealous I am of you right now.

Laurie Brown said...

that is so cool!

Sometimes I just marvel at the minds of the past that figured out things like that, or how to make acorns edible, or that flax would make fiber and then cloth.. they get no honors but they're right up there with Einstein and the rest!

Patrick's Garden said...

Great post. It was so cool you did your own comparison trial. I read a post recently that some Indiana researchers had proven through genetics that today's modern corn roots come from North American Indians and not Mexico. Things that make you go hmmm. Thanks for sharing your comparison trial.
Best,
Patrick

nantuckettiechic said...

Hey! Would you mind if I linked this to my post about my Three sisters garden? I had to make do with popcorn but the sisters really do work sweetly together.
We grew wild amaranth this year and are now trying to separate the seeds from everything else. We may just have extra fiber in our bread this winter...

Greensparrow said...

Tom,
I love making people jealous :)

Laurie,
We absolutely live on the backs of countless generations of great inventors.

Patrick's Garden,
I know the origin of corn is a complex story, constantly being further teased apart, but I haven't kept up on recent research. Can you share the article you were reading?

Nantuckeitiechic,
Feel free to link away!

Angie Babbit said...

Joseph, in Kansas we always associate eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) with the ancient ancestor of corn. You just threw me for a loop.

Greensparrow said...

Angie, that may have been an earlier theory. Because teosinte looks so different from corn, it wasn't identified as the actual ancestor of corn until fairly recently. These days, with more ability to look at the actual genetic makeup, teosintes is clearly the ancestor, though there is still discussion about the amount of hybridization that might have been involved.

Mrs Bok - The Bok Flock said...

Wow that is incredible to think of what our ancestors did with such wisdom and patience. So interesting to see.

Hanna at Orchid Care said...

Your post is very informative and I enjoyed reading it. Also, I absolutely agree that gardening does indeed connect us to those prehistoric cultures that discovered the various aspect of agriculture and then to its modernization.

For me, however, the most powerful connection of gardening is to mother earth and nature. And that also nurtures my need for spiritualism and the belief in the higher power that created all that.

keen101 said...

Hey Joseph, out of curiosity do you know which variety of Teosinte you planted this year?

I also planted several varieties of teosinte this year, and i put up a post about it on my blog. Your blog is pretty interesting, and i might come back and read it from time to time. :)

http://keen101.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/growing-prehistoric-corn-teosinte/

Greensparrow said...

Keen101,
I'm growing Zea mays subsp. parviglumis. Thanks for the link to your blog, I'll be sure to check it out.