The architecture of higher plants is established through the activity of lateral meristems--small groups of stem cells formed during vegetative and reproductive development. Lateral meristems generate branches and inflorescence structures, which define the overall form of a plant, and are largely responsible for the evolution of different plant architectures. Here, we report the isolation of the barren stalk1 gene, which encodes a non-canonical basic helix-loop-helix protein required for the initiation of all aerial lateral meristems in maize. barren stalk1 represents one of the earliest genes involved in the patterning of maize inflorescences, and, together with the teosinte branched1 gene, it regulates vegetative lateral meristem development. The architecture of maize has been a major target of selection for early agriculturalists and modern farmers, because it influences harvesting, breeding strategies and mechanization. By sampling nucleotide diversity in the barren stalk1 region, we show that two haplotypes entered the maize gene pool from its wild progenitor, teosinte, and that only one was incorporated throughout modern inbreds, suggesting that barren stalk1 was selected for agronomic purposes.