If I asked you what plant family feeds more of the world’s people than all other plant families combined, would you have the right answer? Many guess it’s legumes: peas, beans and their cousins. However, it’s the Grass Family, and chief members among them include rice, wheat and the star of today’s show, corn.
Corn, botanically Zea mays (as in “maize”), is a very diverse species of grass that’s native to North America. Columbus and other early European explorers found native populations growing it as they had for probably 7,500 to 10,000 years. The Europeans carried it back home from where it was shared worldwide.
Sweet corn that we buy in the grocery has been carefully hybridized for high sugar content and improved flavor.
Field corn, also commonly referred to as “dent” corn because of the indentations that develop on the ends of the kernels as they mature and dry, is primarily grown to feed livestock. It also finds its way into many industrial and processed food products.
Flint corn earns its name from its rock-hard exteriors and relatively small amount of soft starch. As these kernels dry they shrink uniformly and are dent-free, less likely to spoil.
Popcorn is a type of flint corn that has a soft, starchy center inside the hard shell. When heated, the moisture causes the kernels to explode. The starchy centers inside end up on the outside, ready for butter and salt. Perhaps surprisingly, popcorn varieties may produce kernels with red, purple, blue, yellow, gold, orange or white husks. “Strawberry” popcorn produces tiny 2-inch ears with maroon kernels. You’ll commonly see it sold alongside miniature gourds in nurseries and flower shops.
Indian corn is flint corn, actually in scores of varieties and all types of colors. While it could be used for making flours and other food products, most of what you’ll see offered for sale will end up in decorative baskets or hanging on doors, posts or pillars. In its rich shades of rusts, reds, golds, oranges, yellows, steel blues and white, it’s the perfect companion to decorative gourds, pumpkins, garden mums and other plants and produce of the season.
If you’re going to try growing Indian corn in your own garden, here are some things to remember.
▪ Corn must have full sun, and you’ll need a good-sized patch to ensure full pollination. Corn (all types) is pollinated by wind. The ears are produced down in the leaves from pollen produced by tassels on the tops of the plants.
▪ You have to have at least 400 square feet (20 by 20 feet) to get complete pollination or the cobs won’t be filled out completely. Bigger plantings would be better. And do not plant in single rows. Plant in blocks instead.
▪ If you are planting sweet corn, either plant it 250 feet away from the Indian corn or plant a variety that won’t bloom at the same time. You don’t want pollen from your Indian corn to pollinate sweet corn. It would result in a great loss in sweetness.
▪ Curiously, each kernel of corn represents the work of a separate grain of pollen. When you have an ear with multiple colors, the pollen came from sources with multiple colors.
▪ Almost all Indian corn varieties need 100 to 115 days from planting until harvest. Our best sweet corn varieties here take considerably less than that. That should protect against cross-pollination.
▪ Rototill the soil well prior to planting. Work organic matter such as compost into the soil as you do. Keep weeds out of the planting.
▪ Keep your corn plants watered properly for best results. Apply an all-nitrogen fertilizer as the young plants are developing to keep them growing actively.
▪ Protect the ears from corn earworms by putting several (4 or 5) drops of mineral oil at the tips of each ear as the silks begin to turn brown and dry. That’s an old but effective way of keeping the worms from devouring the ends of the ears. (Curiously, corn earworms are the very same pest as the tomato fruitworm and the cotton bollworm.)
▪ Allow your corn ears to mature fully on the plants. As the husks begin to turn brown pull them back from the cobs so they can dry without becoming misshapen. Store the dried ears cool and dry and in an airtight, rodent-proof container to reduce opportunities for mice to help themselves to your bounty.