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"Ear" of corn etymology

Vincent, Leszek Leszek at missouri.edu
Thu May 16 16:22:43 EST 2002

Dear MentalCaviar & 5th graders

 From the botanical (plant science) perspective the word "ear" is a 
general term for a cereal inflorescence which is compact or a spike.

But what's an 'inflorescence'? An inflorescence is the  flowering 
part of a plant; a flower cluster; the arrangement of the flowers on 
the flowering axis of a plant.

What's a 'spike'? A spike is an unbranched, elongated inflorescence 
with sessile (un-stalked) or subsessile flowers or spikelets (as in 
grasses e.g. corn/maize) maturing from the bottom of the 
inflorescence upwards (as in corn). [Not to be confused with 
'spikelet' which is a specific term for the basic arrangement of the 
floret(s) in grass inflorescences]

What's a 'cereal'? A cereal is any grass species that produces grain 
which is used for food.

Note that the 'ear of corn' is functionally female (meaning that 
rudimentary male flowers in the ear abort early on in the development 
of the ear - only the female flowers reach maturity). The 
functionally female ear in maize (corn) has protruding stigmas 
described as 'silks'. The silks are the long thread-like structures 
which protrude out of the top of an ear of corn. Seeds (technically 
called caryopses) removed from the maize ear expose the axis of the 
ear called a 'cob'. So next time you eat 'corn on the cob' you're 
munching the 'seeds' off the cob which is the central axis of the 
female inflorescence of corn (what a 'mouthful'). I hope I haven't 
stretched the curiosity of your young students too far.

References used primarily:
Chapman, G.P. 1996. The Biology of Grasses. CAB International, NY. 
(ISBN: 0851991114);

Harris, J.G. & M.W. Harris 1994. Plant Identification Terminology: An 
Illustrated Glossary. Spring Lake Publishing, Spring Lake, Utah. 
(ISBN: 096402215X)

Want to know more about corn/maize (scientifically called Zea mays) 
then checkout the Interactive Maize Plant (IMP) at: 
http://www.agron.missouri.edu/IMP/frames_imp2.html (under 

- Leszek Vincent
P. Leszek D. Vincent Ph.D., FLS
Plant Science Unit, Dept. of Agronomy, 209 Curtis Hall,
University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211-7020, USA. Ph: 
(573) 884-3716 (Agronomy), Fax:(573) 884-7850;
Ph/Fax (Home): (573) 441-1228;
Email: Leszek at missouri.edu
Plant Systematist on the Maize Mapping Project - NSF award 9872655 -
(http://www.maizemap.org/ and  http://www.agron.missouri.edu/)

>  -----Original Message-----
>  From: MentalCaviar at aol.com [mailto:MentalCaviar at aol.com]
>  Sent: Thursday, May 16, 2002 10:25 AM
>  To: maize at net.bio.net
>  Subject: "Ear" of corn etymology
>  I am writing on behalf a 5th grade class in San Diego. The question
>  came up, "Why do they call it an Ear of Corn?"  I have yet to find
>  this answer. If anyone can satisfy the curiousity of these eager
>  minds, I would love an email to MentalCaviar at aol.com.
>  Thanks in advance.

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