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Lack of historic maize in Britain

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  • Lack of historic maize in Britain

    Just musing on the conspicuous absence of British heritage corn varieties after reading 'Beautiful Corn' by Anthony Boutard (I highly recommend). Elsewhere on the Eurasian continent, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Balkans, Georgia, Nepal and even Siberia have regional varieties and landraces of field corn i.e. flint, dent, flour or popcorn, some traced back to introductions in the 16th Century. Hokkaido, previously too cold for rice cultivation, has a tradition of growing flint corn since its introduction in the late 1800s. It's a highly adaptable species, so I'm led to believe its absence here is at least in equal part due to cultural apprehension as adverse climatic conditions, though I'd bet on the former having a greater role. But I have not yet found any literature on the subject of Britain specifically.

    French regional corn races
    Bavarian historical corn varieties
    Swiss variety with PDO 'Rheintaler Ribelmais'
    Austrian Alpine corn
    Beautiful gallery of maize cobs and grains; many European varieties

  • #2
    Thank you for this list. Very interesting. There are no traditional courgettes and pumpkins either. Although the 'flying saucer' type squash was grown at some stage as a novelty. Pretty sure that appeared in a painting.

    Possible reason is that, unless you have specially bred varieties, it is a borderline crop that does not do so well and a second reason perhaps that it was considered animal food. I remember reading accounts of 'what do we do with those?' when squash seeds appeared in seed donation parcels to Britain after WWII. Sweet corn maybe in a similar category and only gained traction when the sweet and supersweet types came along together with short season varieties.


    • #3
      Thank you also for the book recommendation. Looks a must.
      And for drawing attention to the history or lack of history in Britain. The growth of maize as a farm crop has increased hugely recently which can’t presumably be simply a result of climate change.

      What kind of ‘cultural apprehension’ do you think might have led to reluctance to develop corn growing?

      I wonder whether inbreeding depression might have deterred small scale gardeners from small scale seed selecting and saving. But that would apply elsewhere too.


      • #4
        By cultural apprehension I mean something not dissimilar to what Galina mentioned, the perception of it being a crop for those deemed as inferior in imperial times - only good enough for animals and the people of the colonies - for example, or being unable to accept its culinary characteristics in comparison to wheat. It took a while for potatoes to gain acceptance if I recall correctly.
        Thanks for bringing up squash because it reminded me of 'French' beans and tomatoes - both have heritage varieties from all over Europe, including the north and east (Russian tomatoes, Dutch beans, etc.)
        Seems the only New World crop to have established here are potatoes. And to a much lesser extent, runner beans. Of course we grow squash, sweetcorn, tomatoes, peppers, beans, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes in our gardens but from the view of agricultural history and regional culinary heritage the varieties are mostly unrepresented on the Isles.
        Boutard mentions how maize really took hold in European regions with marginal farmland, replacing millet - maybe there was simply no niche for maize to fill in Britain... or it couldn't do it better than potatoes.


        • Galina
          Galina commented
          Editing a comment
          Total aside, regarding your comment about French beans. Spain is considered a secondary centre of origin and diversity for French beans, due to widespread early acceptance and diversification over centuries.

      • #5
        Yes indeed. Funny thing about runnerbeans. Because the huge amount of pod breeding and variety stabilisation was only carried out in Britain. And it was only in Britain that traditionally the pods were eaten. Elsewhere in Europe they are considered to be flower beans, ie decorative beans for growing up house fronts etc and/or beans for shelling as important winter food. In Hungary there is the variety Virag, which I found out, just means 'flower'. Apart from the white Greek Gigandes, bred for huge seeds, the 'varieties' are usually a merry mix of all colour seeds. The Austrian 'Käferbohne' is sold for its attractive different seeds, but in this context different seed does not mean different variety, just different seed colour. What the plant does, apart from flowering prettily and making seeds, is of little interest.

        So different from Britain, where the pods are the major feature of interest, and maybe the flower colours a little bit, like the red and white of Painted Lady that hints at the war of the roses or the St George's flag, but the seeds are not used in food. 'Polish Soup Bean' from the Heritage Seed Library on the other hand is a mixture of different seeds hinting at generous seed production being the important feature in Poland, rather than long and juicy pods.

        Sorry this is a bit of a topic change to beans, but it illustrates climate differences and cultural acceptances in different countries which were addressed with maize.
        Last edited by Galina; 22-06-2020, 07:34.