The Fascinating World of Corn Look-Alikes

Have you ever come across a fascinating plant that resembles corn but lacks the distinctive cobs? Perhaps you’ve spotted one in a farmer’s field or even in your own backyard. It’s not uncommon to mistake certain plants for corn due to their uncanny resemblance. In this article, we’ll delve into the realm of these corn look-alikes, exploring their similarities and differences from the real thing.

Identifying the Genuine Corn Plant

Corn, also known as maize, is a widely cultivated crop used for both human and animal consumption. The sweet variety, commonly referred to as sweetcorn or sugar corn, is a favored choice among home-growers. Recognizable by its high sugar content, sweetcorn is harvested when the kernels are immature, known as the milk stage. Field corn, on the other hand, is grown as animal fodder and harvested when the kernels have matured and dried, reaching the dent stage.

When identifying corn, its tall, slender stem and narrow opposing leaves are key distinguishing features. In late summer, the plant blooms with long, pale yellow or green tassels emerging from the end of the cobs. Corn is typically cultivated in dense and uniform rows to maximize wind pollination, resulting in higher yields during harvest.

If you come across a plant resembling corn at a different time of year without flowering or producing cobs, observing its growth until summer can aid in identification. By patiently waiting for the plant to flower, you can confirm whether it is a true corn plant or an imposter. For a more detailed description of Zea mays, the botanical name for corn, visit Ames Farm Center’s website.

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8 Imposters in the World of Corn

Now, let’s explore eight plants that mimic the appearance of corn, often fooling unsuspecting onlookers.

1. Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans)

Corn Plant

One of the most common imposters, the corn plant, is often mistaken for its namesake due to its long, drooping leaves. Commonly found as an indoor houseplant, it closely resembles a young corn plant when it’s still in its initial stages of growth. However, as it matures, it develops bamboo-like brown stems and never produces tassel-like flowers or cobs. The leaves of the corn plant are often striped with lighter green or green-white hues.

2. Johnson Grass (Sorghum halepense)

Johnson Grass

Considered a weed in various regions of the USA, Johnson grass is renowned for its ability to grow nearly anywhere. When young, it closely resembles a corn seedling. To differentiate it from corn, inspect the roots—Johnson grass roots bear red-brown or black seeds. Another distinguishing feature is the presence of a vein running down the center of the leaf, which turns off-white at the base.

3. Sorghum Crop (Sorghum spp.)

Sorghum Crop

Sorghum crops are commonly found in the Southern and Midwestern regions of the United States. Like corn, sorghum belongs to the grass family, Poaceae, and shares a similar upright, leafy form. It can be easily mistaken for corn due to this resemblance. However, sorghum plants have thinner, less lush leaves. The main differentiating factor lies in their flowers—sorghum produces large tassels at the top of the plant but does not bear cobs.

4. Giant Reed (Arundo donax L.)

Giant Reed

True to its name, the giant reed can reach impressive heights of up to 6 meters. Its long, strong stems and drooping leaves bear a striking resemblance to cornstalks. This species, part of the Poaceae family, is commonly found in wet areas and riparian habitats, differentiating it from corn, which thrives in drier locations. During late summer, the giant reed produces a long, purple-silver plume that emerges above its foliage.

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5. Quack Grass (Elytrigia repens)

Quack Grass

Also known as couch grass, quack grass is a persistent and fast-growing grass species often regarded as a weed in cultivated areas. Its long, flat, drooping leaves resemble those of a young corn plant. To distinguish it from corn, examine the texture of the leaves—the upper side is either hairy or waxy, while the underside is waxy. Moreover, quack grass typically grows in clumps and features long, white rhizomes on its roots, facilitating its spreading habit.

6. Giant Miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus)

Giant Miscanthus

Giant miscanthus is a towering crop gaining popularity as a biofuel source. As a hybrid of two wild miscanthus species, Miscanthus sinensis and Miscanthus sacchariflorus, it can grow between 3 to 4 meters in just one growing season. Resprouting year after year, this perennial grass doesn’t require resowing, making it an efficient biofuel crop. While it may bear similarities to corn with its long, drooping leaves, giant miscanthus features more woody, bamboo-like stems. A field with consistent growth of this crop over multiple years is likely to be miscanthus rather than corn.

7. Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

Pearl Millet

Pearl millet, widely grown as a hay crop or animal fodder, possesses incredible drought resistance, thriving in arid areas or regions with frequent dry spells. This grass species grows between 1.5 to 3 meters in height. Before flowering in summer, it closely resembles corn due to its lush, drooping leaves and closely spaced clusters along the tall central stem. However, pearl millet differentiates itself from corn by producing cream-white grains on long spikes during late summer.

8. Crab Grass (Digitaria spp.)

Crab Grass

Often classified as a weed due to its invasive nature and rapid spread, crab grass is a small grass species that can be mistaken for young corn seedlings. It grows close to the ground, with green stems and long, drooping leaves on either side. Distinguishing it from corn is relatively easy—crab grass often sprouts multiple stems from its base, and its leaves are significantly shorter, measuring only around 12 cm. Unlike corn, crab grass does not produce cobs or tassel-like flowerheads.

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Identifying Your Intriguing Corn Look-Alikes

If you’ve encountered a plant that looks remarkably similar to corn but isn’t quite the real deal, don’t worry—we’re here to help. With numerous crops and wild grasses closely resembling corn, it can be challenging to discern the imposters from the genuine article. The best approach is to patiently observe the plant throughout the summer, monitoring its flowering and seed production. This will enable you to differentiate between a corn look-alike and an authentic corn plant. We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the world of corn and its deceptive doppelgängers!

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