Maize stems superficially resemble bamboo canes and the internodes can reach 44.5 centimetres (17.5 in). Maize has a distinct growth form; the lower leaves being like broad flags, generally 50–100 centimetres long and 5–10 centimetres wide (2–4 ft by 2–4 in); the stems are erect, conventionally 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) in height, with many nodes, casting off flag-leaves at every node. Under these leaves and close to the stem grow the ears. They grow about 3 millimetres a day.
The ears are female inflorescences, tightly covered over by several layers of leaves, and so closed-in by them to the stem that they do not show themselves easily until the emergence of the pale yellow silks from the leaf whorl at the end of the ear. The silks are elongated stigmas that look like tufts of hair, at first green, and later red or yellow. Plantings for silage are even denser, and achieve a lower percentage of ears and more plant matter. Certain varieties of maize have been bred to produce many additional developed ears. These are the source of the "baby corn" used as a vegetable in Asian cuisine.
Maize is a facultative long-night plant and flowers in a certain number of growing degree days > 50 °F (10 °C) in the environment to which it is adapted. The magnitude of the influence that long nights have on the number of days that must pass before maize flowers is genetically prescribed and regulated by the phytochrome system. Photoperiodicity can be eccentric in tropical cultivars, while the long days characteristic of higher latitudes allow the plants to grow so tall that they do not have enough time to produce seed before being killed by frost. These attributes, however, may prove useful in using tropical maize for biofuels.
The apex of the stem ends in the tassel, an inflorescence of male flowers. When the tassel is mature and conditions are suitably warm and dry, anthers on the tassel dehisce and release pollen. Maize pollen is anemophilous (dispersed by wind) and because of its large settling velocity most pollen falls within a few meters of the tassel. Each silk may become pollinated to produce one kernel of maize. Young ears can be consumed raw, with the cob and silk, but as the plant matures (usually during the summer months) the cob becomes tougher and the silk dries to inedibility. By the end of the growing season, the kernels dry out and become difficult to chew without cooking them tender first in boiling water. Modern farming techniques in developed countries usually rely on dense planting, which produces one large ear per stalk.