By David Wall, Mount Pleasant Master Gardener
Some 7-10K years ago, the people of central America and Mexico developed what we know today as corn. I say developed, because corn doesn’t grow in the wild. These ancients took a wild, tough, ancient grass known as teosinte, somehow tamed it and developed it into corn. What most people don’t know is that botanically, corn is a grass. Nutritionally though, it’s a carbohydrate grain. However you consider it, corn is a delicious addition to your meals, fresh in summertime and fresh or frozen the rest of the year.
Being a grain, corn is high in sugar, although its high fiber content tends to offset the effects of sugar on your body. For some scientific reason, when the corn ears are picked, the sugar immediately starts turning to starch. For this reason, if you plan to eat the picked ears, do so immediately. Shuck ‘em, cook or roast ‘em , and eat ‘em! For those to be eaten later, pick them and immediately freeze them, husk and all, which will stop the sugar-to-starch conversion. Days, weeks, or months later, take them out of the freezer, husk and go straight to the shucking and boiling or roasting!
Corn eventually made its way into what is now the U.S. Later, good old Columbus brought corn back to Europe. One can only image the taste of those ears that had had months for the sugar to turn to starch! It was merely a curiosity at first, but as the first and subsequent year’s crops came in, popularity increase until corn was worldwide.
Today, the top four corn growers are the European communion, China, Brazil, and The U.S. Our production is by far the largest producer, with our annual output exceeding the combined output of the other three top producers! We plant over 91 million acres of corn for three main purposes. Roughly 1/3 is grown for us to eat and for industrial uses. Another 1/3 is used ethanol, and the final 1/3 is for animal feed. Aside from all the food product uses, corn was used during WWII in the development of penicillin and continues to be used as such as well as in other medicines today!
Corn today comes in six different forms: two obvious and four less obvious. First is sweet corn for our consumption. It is picked before its ripe to preserve the sugar content. If left to ripen on its own, the sugar-to-starch will begin on its own, and the flavor will decrease accordingly. Withing sweet corn, there are several varieties based on color, size, or sweetness.
The second form is dent corn, more commonly known as feed corn. This type is easily identifiable due to its hardness and the “dent” in the top of each kernel. Field corn is allowed to ripen and dry before picking. When you see a corn field with dried stalks, you’re looking at field corn. Can you eat field corn? The answer is yes, although the flavor is considerably less than sweet corn! I ate field corn over 40 years ago in Germany before I knew there was a difference between the two! Aside from feeding animals, field corn is also used in tortillas, corn chips, and more importantly, moonshine and bourbon!!!
Flint or calico corn is identifiable by the multicolored kernels on each ear which can vary from yellow to burgundy. Calico corn is often used in autumn decorations. The kernels normally aren’t good for eating, but can be ground for corn meal, flour and grits.
Pop corn is used for guess what?!!! Similar to calico, it’s not eaten on the cob. One of the oldest types of corn, the kernels are heated to turn the moisture inside to steam, causing the kernel to explode, thus providing a starchy treat for home and the movies!
Flour corn is usually not found in the U.S. It’s mostly grown in South America for flour, and waxy corn is grown in China. Waxy corn is apparently confined to China and while tasting like corn, has a texture closer to rice.
There’s actually a seventh type called heirloom corn. It sounds weird, but it’s corn that isn’t mass-produced, because nearly all the heirlooms have died out – Remember, corn does not survive in the wild. A few horticulturalists are trying to save remaining heirlooms, but it’s an uphill battle. Nevertheless, look for heirloom corn seeds in a few more years.
In both theory and reality, corn plants can pollinate themselves. This is fact in large plantings, such as a farm. Self-pollination seems to become more difficult the smaller the planting. This is why planting directions in a garden say to plant in a block of at least four rows. Remember, corn is a grass, so the flowers (tassels – the male part) are at the top of the stalk. They release pollen which flutters down to the female part, the silk on a corn ear. Each silk is connected to what will be a kernel. With pollination, you get a juicy ear of corn. Obviously, pollination works much better on the interior portion of plantings as opposed to the outside edges. Over 90% of all pollination comes from neighboring plants.
Farms use wind as a pollination helper, lifting pollen from one plant tassel and transferring it to a different plant’s silk. For best results in a smaller garden, hand pollination. Pollen begins producing a few days the silks appear. When silks appear, snap off a tassel, and place them in a bag/sack, and shake. Now place the bag/sack over the silk and shake. Once make work, but it’s best to repeat the process several times.
The literature suggests that if (after pollination) you tape the silk end of the corn ear shut with tape, it will help prevent corn ear worms from entering and feasting on the corn ears. This sounds almost fishy, but there are those who swear by it. Happy eating.
There is, unfortunately, one huge problem with commercially grown corn. 92% of it is GMO corn, which means it is genetically modified to not be affected by the carcinogen glyphosate found in Roundup. So, grow your own in 2023!!!!