Time for Teosinte! A high-yielding fodder plant that animals are “extravagantly fond of”.

 Teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis) courtesy of Stephen Smith, growing at Austin Peay State University greenhouse.

Teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis) courtesy of Stephen Smith, growing at Austin Peay State University greenhouse.

 Teosinte seedling by Jamie Jackson, MissouriHerbs.com

Teosinte seedling by Jamie Jackson, MissouriHerbs.com

Above is a teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis) seedling. We got them in the ground today.   I tried the variety from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. 

Special thanks to Stephen Smith for his teosinte images.  Stephen is working on a book and as soon as I get the info on that, I'll post here. 


If you have done any research on the evolution of corn, you know that its wild ancestor is a grass called teosinte. It doesn't look much like corn, but the two are surprisingly alike at the DNA level. Over thousands of years, selective breeding of teosinte has generated the diversity of corn varieties that are grown today.

Teosinte is still grown in modern times for its amazing qualities. It somewhat resembles Indian corn, but the leaves are longer and broader, and the stalk is filled with sweeter sap.  The plant is grown as a multi-cut, high-yielding, excellent fodder, silage, hay and soiling crop (a crop cut green and fed to livestock immediately without further curing or processing).  

Because of its biomass and stalk sugars, researchers are also studying this plant as a possibility for biofuel.  It can be planted as a food for wildlife (including deer, turkey, quail, and dove), and is used in conservation programs because it provides cover and a long term food supply. Deer use the young growth for forage. Birds will readily eat the seed and it provides them with a late season food supply because the seed is hard and remains on the ground.

It can yield 20-30 tons per acre and would be the top forage crop if it were not for the fact that to truly thrive, it likes a moist, rich soil with a hot growing season.  Teosinte will need at least 5-6 months of good weather to produce a crop and does great in the South and Southwest.  Unlike corn, it is not affected by serious pests or diseases.

 Zea mays ssp. parviglumis courtesy of Stephen Smith, growing at Austin Peay State University greenhouse.

Zea mays ssp. parviglumis courtesy of Stephen Smith, growing at Austin Peay State University greenhouse.

Saeed Rauf, University of Sargodha, found that “it sustains lower injury under heat stress (97-113° F), has the ability to produce large plant biomass (27% - 55% higher yield than maize), and could be exploited as a forage crop.”  Similar findings have been reported from agricultural colleges throughout the U.S., and the Texas Beekeepers association said teosinte stands at the head of the list for forage plants.  A test in Northern Missouri found that when grown in very dry, stressed conditions, in soil that had been overworked for 15 years with no manure, they were able to harvest 5-6 tons per acre, compared to only 40 bushels of corn (about ¾ ton) in the same environment.   They found the fodder was relished by “all kinds of stock, from horses to hogs”.

“One plant is estimated to be sufficient to feed a pair of cattle for twenty-four hours. In the extreme South, teosinte would be a perennial. In the North a single seed will make from 12 to 16 stalks, and from 25 to 30 if first started in a hot-bed.”

S.A. Cook writes "It surpasses either corn or sorghum as a soiling or fodder plant. I counted 85 stalks from one seed. Cows are extravagantly fond of them."  From Samuel A. Mather, "My teosinte has grown 16 feet high, and had 40 stalks. The remainder has been cut 4 or 5 times, and I am now cutting it again. It far surpases all other kinds of fodder."  ~ From Gregory's Annual Illustrated Catalogue, 1885.

"Teosinte can tolerate moderate drought and temporary flooding caused by heavy monsoon showers. In case of multicut management, it can give four cuttings.  In single cut management it should be harvested about one week before tasseling.” - DairyFarmGuide.com  

 Zea mays ssp. parviglumis courtesy of Stephen Smith, growing at Austin Peay State University greenhouse.

Zea mays ssp. parviglumis courtesy of Stephen Smith, growing at Austin Peay State University greenhouse.

Studies have shown that clipping the plant to 6 inches when it attains a height of 3 feet increases the density and seed production of the plant.  Burning a field where teosinte grew to maturity and some seed are left behind, will stimulate the seed on the ground and increase the percentage of volunteer plants.

We are growing teosinte this year to see how it does for creating mulch and building compost. But if for no other reason, growing this plant for it’s beauty, for the wildlife and to relive plant history is worth the space in your garden or fields.