Sandy’s Garden ... Maize and My Memory

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Every so often, a piece of music pops up, entirely involuntarily, in my head.

I don’t know what triggers it - it’s just there, all of a sudden. Such a tune is the accompaniment to the television adverts which ran in the late summer and early autumn for Marks & Spencer’s food. This tune emerges from my subconscious mind to my conscious self so frequently that I have actually taken the trouble to find out what it is; and I can tell you that it is a song called Rather Be which was recorded in 2014 by Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne

Similarly, a half-heard sentence from a current affairs broadcast some five or six weeks ago haunts me from time to time, partly because it seems so surreal. “Jeremy Corbyn said that 2015 had been a good year for maize in his allotment.” Did he really? Did I mishear the actual words? Was I dreaming? But this time I have been unable to trace the origin of this half-heard sentence, the top offer from Google in response to my search for ‘Jeremy Corbyn maize’ being, ‘Zimbabwe faces food riots after massive rise in price of maize.’

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘maize’ as a noun describing, ‘a Central American cereal plant which yields large grains (or sweetcorn) set in rows on a cob. The many varieties include some used for stockfeed and corn oil.’ The plant belongs to the botanical family Gramineae and the name ‘maize’ first appeared in the English language in the mid-16th century and is derived from the Spanish word ‘maíz’, which itself come from the Taino word ‘mahiz’, the Taino being a race of people indigenous to the Caribbean islands. And, since the Spanish explored much of central and south America and the islands off the east coast of the Americas during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it is easy to understand how the seed for this plant .. and its name … came to Spain and so to the British Isles.

Known as ‘corn’ in many English-speaking countries, maize is a large grain plant whose leafy stalk produces ears which contain the seed which we value as grain These seeds are thought to have been used as a food crop by mankind for at least ten thousand years, for plants in the family Gramineae … the grasses … have been cultivated for their edible seed from the earliest days of man the farmer rather than the hunter-gatherer. Something of the order of nine thousand years ago, cultivation of the large grass we call maize started to spread from southern Mexico throughout much of south and north America as a trade network in this valuable food crop developed. The plant’s ability to thrive in a variety of climates encouraged this spread and the subsequent spread into Europe and thence into much of the world. In the very beginning, maize plants produced small corn cobs little more than 25mm long … say, an inch long in old money. The Mexican farmers who pioneered the cultivation of this particular grass began the process of selective breeding to produce plants which carried several seed heads rather than the single seed head of the original plant, and developed plants with seed heads which were several times larger than the originals.

Today, maize is used to produce the flour used in many farinaceous dishes world-wide. We eat it as sweet corn, as baby corn, as popcorn, as cornflour, corn flakes and corn syrup. It is used extensively as cattle feed and to feed chickens and hens. It is fermented and distilled to produce bourbon whisky. But, although it is one of the world’s most widely-grown plants, would Jeremy Corbyn grow maize in an allotment? Come to that, does Jeremy Corbyn tend an allotment? Perhaps, just perhaps, we shall learn more in the fullness of time.