Photograph of a partially harvested field of maize with an ear of maize with yellow kernels laying on the ground in the foreground.

Maize quick facts

Page snapshot: Quick facts about maize: What it is, where it came from, how it is used, how it is grown, and where it is grown.

Topics covered on this page: What is maize?; Where did maize come from?; Is maize corn?; How is maize used?; How is maize grown?; Where is maize grown?; Resources.

Credits: Funded by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This page includes content from the Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Evolution Maize (T. M. Fulton, C. S. Buckler, and R. A. Kissel, 2011). Additional content and revisions by Elizabeth J. Hermsen (2023).

Updates: Page last updated February 23, 2023.

Image above: A maize field with an ear of maize in the foreground, Virginia, U.S.A., 2013. USDA photo by Lance Cheung (flickr, public domain).

What is maize?

Maize (Zea mays) is a tropical grass that is grown primarily for grain and is used as a staple food in many parts of the world. It produces relatively large, soft grains, called kernels that are usually yellow in color, although some varieties come in other colors, like blue, red, and multicolored.

Photograph of maize. The photo shows a close-up rows of dried cornstalks with mature corn. The husk has been partially opened on one ear of corn, exposing the kernels. A combine is present in the left background, out of focus.
Photograph of ears of maize. The photo shows two ears of maize standing vertically, apparently still attached to green corn stalks. The leaves making up the husks that typically surround the ears have been peeled back, exposing the ear and yellow corn kernels.
Photograph of maize (corn) ears from Mexico on a white background. The ears have kernels of various colors, from dull yellow to bright yellow to pink, dark red, and nearly black. Some ears have kernels of more than one color, and some ears have kernels of a single color.

Ears of different corn varieties from Mexico. Photo by Feria de Productores on flickr (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image cropped and resized).

Where did maize come from?

Based on archaeological evidence, scientists think that maize was first domesticated around 10,000 years ago in the Balsas Valley of Mexico, which is southwest of modern-day Mexico City. The wild ancestors of maize were plants known as teosinte (Zea spp.), which had branching stems, small ears, and hard kernels. Over the thousands of years since its domestication, humans have selected maize to have more kernels, larger ears with more rows of kernels, and exposed (soft) kernels. Modern maize plants have been improved through selective breeding, and some varieties are genetically engineered using genes from bacteria to make them pest- and herbicide-resistant.

2-panel figure showing the growth form of teosinte. Panel 1: Photograph of a teosinte plant showing its branching structure. Panel 2: Black and white drawing of a teosinte plant showing how it branches to form a clump. Details of the ears (female inflorescences) and a kernel are shown to the sides of the plant.

Teosinte plants. Left: Zea diploperennisRight: Zea mays subspecies mexicana. Photo credits: Zea diploperennis by Jeffdelonge (Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Unported license, image cropped and resized); Zea mays subspecies mexicana (Wikimedia Commons, via USDA PLANTS, public domain).

Photograph showing ears of teosinte (top), maize (bottom), and a teosinte-maize hybrid (center) against a red background. The teosinte ear is the smallest and looks like it consists of a single row of green kernels. The maize ear is the largest, with may rows of large, yellow kernels. The hybrid is intermediate between the two.

Ears of teosinte (top), maize (bottom), and a maize-teosinte hybrid (center). Photo by John Doebley (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

Photograph of teosinte kernels scattered on a white background. The photo shows numerous roughly triangular kernels that vary in color from off white to deep brown.

Is maize corn?

The term “maize” comes to English through Spanish (maíz), and ultimately originates from the word mahiz of the now-extinct Taíno language (the language of the Taíno people, one of the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean islands). The first known use of the word "maize" was in the 1500s, after European explorers came to the Americas and first encountered the plant.

Originally, the term “corn” was a general term for any grain in English. In the U.S., Australia, and Canada, "corn" has since come to refer specifically to maize. Thus, the terms “maize” and “corn” are often used interchangeably. In contrast, “corn” may still be used to refer to other grains in British English.

Photograph of ears of maize from Peru. The photo shows relatively short ears of maize with kernels in a variety of colors, ranging from light brown to orange to pink to deep red.

How is maize used?

Maize is grown primarily for its kernels, which are high in starch, but also contain fiber, oil, and protein. Among its many uses, whole or milled maize grain (for example, corn flour and corn meal) is a food source for people and livestock, such as chickens, cows, and hogs. 

Corn oil is used in processed foods and personal care products, like shampoo and cosmetics. Cornstarch is used as a binding and thickening agent and is found in a wide variety of processed foods and other products. Cornstarch can also be broken down into sugars to make sweeteners like corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Maize starch converted to sugars can be fermented to make ethanol-based biofuels or alcoholic beverages like bourbon. The major components of the maize kernel have many other industrial uses and appear in surprising products, like disposable diapers, fireworks, and paints.

Maize stover (the stalk and leaves) may also be collected for a variety of uses, including livestock feed and kitty litter. Stover is also of interest as a source of biomass for potential cellulosic ethanol biofuel production.

Photograph of elotes, grilled corn on the cob with seasoning. The photos shows corn on the cob sitting on aluminum foil. Some of the cobs have husks and some do not. Some are partially charred.

Elotes (grilled corn on the cob with seasoning) in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Luis Alvaz (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image cropped and resized).

Photograph of corn flour. The photo shows a clear glass bowl full of corn flour. The flour is light yellow in color and looks granular. A wooden spoon is resting in the flour.
Photograph of tortillas being prepared. The photo shows a flat grill sitting on a fire, with five tortillas sitting on the grill. A person is picking up one of the tortillas, which has been slightly browned on the visible side.

A person making tortillas in Urique, Mexico. One of the traditional uses of maize is to make masa, a type of dough used in tortilla-making. Photo by Eli Duke (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Photograph of bottle of corn oil on a shelf in a store. The photo shows a row of Mazola brand corn oil in clear plastic bottles with yellow and green labels. Each bottle has a red label that says "Heart Healthy" and a red banner on the brand label that says "Cholesterol Free."

Bottles of corn oil on a shelf at a store. Photo by Mike Mozart (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Photograph of an ingredients label for strawberry jam that was made in the U.S.A. Ingredients are strawberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, fruit pectin, and citric acid.

Nutrition label for strawberry jam with three types of sweeteners: HFCS, corn syrup, and sugar. Photo by Food Thinkers (flickrCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image cropped).

Photograph of an E85 fuel pump in Minnesota. The photo shows an orange and black fuel pump cleared marked "E85, 85% Ethanol" in several places.

Original caption: "An E85 (85% ethanol) gas pump at a fueling station in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota." Photo by Tony Webster (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Photograph of a row of bottles of bourbon. The photo shows five bottles of bourbon of a range of shapes and heights, with varying amounts of bourbon left in them. The bourbon is orange-brown in color.
Photograph of a combine harvesting corn stover. The photo shows a rectangular green and yellow machine driving into rows of dried corn stalks. A harvested area with only corn stubble can be seen in the foreground.

How is maize grown?

Like other grass grain crops, maize is grown in cultivated fields. Maize is grown from seed as an annual crop, meaning that it reaches maturity in one growing season. Maize is primarily a cross-pollinated plant, and pollination and fertilization are important to grain yields. Most commercially produced maize comes from hybrid and genetically engineered seeds. In order to maintain the consistency of the crop and the vigor of the plants in commercial operations, a fresh batch of hybrid seeds must be purchased for each new crop.

Photograph of a man using a hoe or shovel to hand-dig a series of large, shallow, rectangular holes in a plot being prepared for maize planting.
Photograph of a field of hybrid maize. On the right side of the field is a mowed area in which signs have been placed at regular intervals. The signs are yellow and white and are labeled with the brand and code for different types of seed. The nearest sign says "Supreme EX Brand Seed 1083AMX-R."

Hybrid maize that has also been genetically engineered, Ohio, U.S.A., 2013. Photo by leyink (flickrCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Photograph of the maize kernel harvest at a farm in Virginia. The photo shows a red combine sitting in a partially harvested field of maize and facing away from the viewer. A chute extending from the left side of the combine is angled over a red trailer. Maize kernels are streaming from the end of the chute and into the trailer. Two men stand near the trailer, watching it being loaded.

Maize being harvested in Virginia, U.S.A., 2013. USDA photo by Lance Cheung (flickr, public domain).

Where is maize grown?

Maize can be grown in large parts of the temperate zone because it is an annual crop that does not require an extremely long growing season. Today, maize is the world's number two commodity crop, after sugarcane. The top producers of maize are the United States and China, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, and India. 

World map showing maize production in 2020. Countries are shaded lighter green to indicate less production, darker green to indicate more production. The top producers (dark green countries) are the U.S.A., Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, India, and China.

World map of maize production in 2020 by country. Map from Our World in Data (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, image resized).



Products [of maize] (Corn Refiners Association):


Dean, S. 2013. The etymology of the word 'corn.' Bon Appétit, July 11, 2013.

Heuzé, V., G. Tran, and F. Lebas. 2019. Maize stover. Feedipedia, last updated on November 6, 2019.


Levetin, P., and D. S. McMahon. 2016. Plants and Society, 7th ed. McGraw Hill Education, New York.

Simpson, B. B., and M. C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Economic botany, plants in our world, 3rd ed. McGraw Hill Higher Education, New York, New York.

Stewart, Amy. 2013. The Drunken Botanist. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.