“I’m as cheesy as Kansas in August.”
Nelli Forbush in “South Pacific”, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Well, it’s not August yet, and this plant isn’t exactly corn. But it’s close.
This is a weed that you can see basically everywhere in the eastern United States, from Florida and Texas well into the upper Midwest, southern New England and way down into South America. It’s actually quite distinctive I think, even if you’re driving on the Autobahn (be aware of the speed limit).
The plants grow in large clusters of rhizomes. The stems are tall and arching at this time of year, often tilting forward, sometimes to nearly 9 feet tall. The leaves are dark green and, like many grass species, somewhat scratchy. This is the time of year when plants bloom in their grass-like way.
All of the flowers produced by this plant are either male or staminate flowers (which produce pollen) or female or pistillate flowers (which produce ovules from which the seeds are eventually derived). The flowers are always separate, but both can be found on the same individual; We botanists say that such plants are “monoecious”.
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In the case of our Mystery Plant, the stems develop one to three terminal, strong spikes. Each spike will have pistillate buds at the bottom and then a row of stamine buds at the top. If you look closely at these things, you will see that all flowers, whether pistillate or stamine, are deeply embedded in the tissue of the spike itself. The female flowers have purple or whitish, feathery stigmas to collect pollen.
Stamine flowers have their distinctive orange anthers hanging out, connected by delicate, thread-like filaments. After shedding their pollen, the staminate buds dry up and get kind of crusty and eventually fall off the top. The pistillate flowers below end in a stringy, pearl-like arrangement, and they, too, will eventually all fall off one another in the fall. Each pistillate flower is capable of producing a single seed. The grain of fruit that once fell off the ear is a bit strange, looking like a hard little grain of corn and shaped like a trash can.
This plant is in fact related to what Americans commonly know as “corn,” the stuff that grows in the fields and produces thick “ears” (special spikes of female flowers) and tassels over them (where the pollen comes from). . Genetically similar to cultivated corn, there is considerable evidence that it was crossed with another Mexican species long ago to form the plant we now call corn or Zea mays.
Of course, our friends in the UK like to use the word ‘corn’ for what we call ‘maize’. In fact, the English word ‘maize’ has been in use for a very long time and in the UK often refers to almost any type of grass crop that produces grain.
It really is a pretty weed, with spikes sticking out in the air like turkey feet. It’s also fun to grow in your garden, although it can be a bit weedy despite being a native.
Answer: “Gama grass”, “Turkey foot grass”, Tripsacum dactyloides.
John Nelson is the retired curator of the AC Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identification. For more information, visit herbarium.biol.sc.edu or email firstname.lastname@example.org.