Friday, March 20, 2015

Corn Confusion

It is the first day of spring. It is snowing, coming down steadily, accumulating.

It has been well below freezing all afternoon (27 degrees F).

I don't really care; I feel too bad to mind.

Since our return from the tropics earlier this week, I have been under the weather (really sick), so it is appropriate that the weather I am under is so awful. I am staying inside with tea and a book.

The book I am reading is about medieval gardens, and even in my slightly fevered loopiness I was confused by references to gardens in Britain in the 1200s growing corn. That can't be.

Cornfields of monastic gardens and ancient royal castles make no sense. Didn't Columbus discover the new world, and the crops in it, in 1492? The period I am reading about predates that by centuries.

As I get older I increasingly distrust what I thought I knew. Most of my formal education has been overturned or thrown out by living for so many years. But corn growing in medieval Europe can't be right.

The Google quickly tells me it's simply a language issue (you know, England and the US -- two peoples separated by a common language.)

It turns out corn in England means a hard seed.
Definition: (British) the grain of a cereal grass that is the primary crop of a region (as wheat in Britain and oats in Scotland and Ireland)
When they refer to the yellow corn we know, Zea mays, it's called Indian corn. Otherwise "corn" is simply grain. Well, that clears it up.

But now I am distracted, thinking about the other times I have thought "that can't be corn".

In Santa Fe, New Mexico I first saw big stalks of corn growing in decorative containers on sidewalks in town. It was the first time I had seen corn -- real Zea mays -- grown as an ornamental, and I was amazed at what a pretty (and appropriate) plant it was on a southwestern street corner.

Even though it looked just like the field crop I know as corn, I didn't think it could be. An ornamental? It took me a few days of seeing it planted all over town to realize what it was.

It must have been a variety called 'Field of Dreams', which is stately and has pink and white striped leaves. The pots were large municipal containers that suited these big stalks beautifully.

Then visiting Chanticleer Garden in Pennsylvania, I saw this grand shock of striped leaves rising out of a perennial border and I immediately thought: that isn't corn, is it? It's beautiful, light catching and dramatic.

I saw it planted in several spots at Chanticleer and was so impressed that they used corn as a bright punctuation to traditional daylilies and alliums and dark smokebush foliage. What a combination. But that can't really be corn, or could it?

It's not. It is giant reed grass, Arundo donax. Not corn. My mistake.

I researched it, thinking I really do need something big and structural for the back of my own garden. My friend Becky has it in hers, and says it does spread about (she keeps after it, cutting back runners). I haven't yet decided to plant it, though.

There is another plant that always makes me say "is that really corn?" but I have only seen pictures of it. I have never grown it. 'Glass Gem' corn is real Zea mays, bred for colorful kernels, and it's beautiful. You can buy seeds online and grow it.

It doesn't look real but it is. It's flint corn, which means kernels have a hard casing, so you don't eat it off the cob. You can pop it, but the popcorn is white, not gem colored : (

Enough distraction. I need to get back to my book.

It's still snowing, I'm still sick, but now I am no longer confused by Europeans growing corn in the 13th century. Whew.

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