The main topic of Elizabeth Kolbert's piece from one of last month's New Yorkers is the effects of the drought on crop yield, but wow, what an introductory paragraph, in and of itself.
Corn sex is complicated. As Michael Pollan observes in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the whole affair is so freakishly difficult it’s hard to imagine how it ever evolved in the first place. Corn’s female organs are sheathed in a sort of vegetable chastity belt—surrounded by a tough, virtually impenetrable husk. The only way in is by means of a silk thread that each flower extends, Rapunzel-like, through a small opening. For fertilization to take place, a grain of pollen must land on the tip of the silk, then shimmy its way six to eight inches through a microscopic tube, a journey that requires several hours. The result of a successfully completed passage is a single kernel. When everything is going well, the process is repeated something like eight hundred times per ear, or roughly eighty thousand times per bushel.