The History of Corn and How to Grow It

subsurface drip tubing under corn, courtesy of Toro

It’s already August, but you can still plant corn, and you can thank the efforts of New England Indian tribes for this late summer option for your vegetable garden. Having received their first corn through trade with Indian tribes inhabiting the warmer Southeast, around 1000 years ago, the New England tribes were eager to develop quick ripening varieties that would be suitable for their shorter growing season.  To this end, they planted seed (kernels) from ears that were the first to ripen on selected corn plants, ears located on the lowest part of the stalks in question.  By repeating this process consistently over many generations of plants, varieties with quicker ripening times were developed.

When the first Thanksgiving feast took place in 1621, the pioneers at Plymouth were beneficiaries of 600 years of corn improvement.  The corn prepared for that neighborly feast would have been flint corn, the multi-colored Indian corn whose kernels are hard like flint.  Those kernels would probably have been made into a dish known as hominy, although flint corn is appropriate for popcorn, too.
The origin of corn is tropical and the ripening time of primitive tropical varieties is four months or longer.  Today, continuing in the footsteps of the native New Englanders, corn varieties are now available that are ready to be picked as soon as two months after planting their seeds.
To speed up the ripening process, copying the Indian formula for success, plant beans or some other legume next to your corn.  Corn is a heavy feeder, and nitrate produced by the legume will assist the maturation process of the corn.  Although beans that vine are traditionally planted with corn, whose stalks serve as supports for the climbing beans, bush beans are better adapted to summer growing than the vining types.  To fully embrace the Indian way, you would put a fish beneath each mound upon which your corn and beans were planted and plant squash in the open space between the mounds.  The squash serves as a living mulch, reducing both evaporation from the soil surface and irrigation frequency.
Corn loves heat and so planting it at this time of year, as opposed to the spring, should also accelerate its growth.  By the same token, plants could more easily be stressed if the weather is extremely hot which could make them more susceptible to corn smut, a debilitating fungus that appears as swollen blue-gray growths upon the developing ears.  In Mexico, this fungus is consumed as a delicacy in some locales and ears infected with it fetch a higher price than those that are fungus free. Proper mulching and watering practices such as root-directed drip irrigation, relieving water stress, are the pest preventive action where corn smut is concerned.  Corn ear worms are a common larval pest with a prevention program that prescribes application of five drops of mineral oil on silk tassels — of developing ears — as soon as they turn brown.  As for corn borer larvae, attracting beneficial insects, spiders, birds, and even frogs can control their proliferation.
A bacterial biological control agent known as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) may also be sprayed as a contact control measure on larvae (caterpillars) of every kind, including corn ear worms and borers.   There are commercial corn varieties utilized for sileage and in ethanol production that produce Bt metabolically and are thus immunized against larval pests, but no sweet corn varieties have yet been developed with this Bt producing capacity.
Just as wild mustard bears bears only the most remote resemblance to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kohlrabi, crops that were derived from it with the help of intensive breeding and hybridization over hundreds if not thousands of years, teosinte, a wild and barely edible grass, was the ancestor of corn.  Teosinte “ears” are only an inch long, and contain a dozen tiny kernels enclosed in pods.  From this unpromising, barely edible specimen, modern corn was born.
Although the first crude corn crops were grown around 9,000 years ago in southern Mexico, it took almost 8.000 years — at around 1,200 B.C. — for corn to reach Indian tribes in the Southwest, and another thousand years, at the beginning of the first millennium, until corn was being grown by Indians in the Ohio Valley and the Southeast.  Finally, at the end of the first millennium around 1,000 A.D, corn reached New England.
The English speaking settlers of Plymouth labeled the staple crop they saw for the first time “Indian corn” since the word “corn,” derived from the word “grain,” had long been used in England as as a generic term for cereal crops.
Sweet corn varieties recommended for August planting include ‘Earlivee’ and ‘Welcome.’  ‘Peaches and Cream’ (pale orange and white kernels) and ‘Honey and Cream’ (yellow and white kernels) are bicolor varieties recommended for August planting.  Baby corn is a quick grower that is famous for its tiny ears that measure no more than four inches in length and which are completely consumed, often in stir fry dishes, cobs included. Choose from ‘Bonus,’ ‘Orchard Baby,’ and many other varieties.  Although baby corn plants grow up to five feet, you can start harvesting the ears when plants are only eighteen inches tall.

Corn, Ornamental Japonica Striped Maize, photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau

Tip of the Week:  If you take a fancy to variegated pink, green, and cream foliage, you might want to consider another kind of corn.   Known as ‘Ornamental Japonica Striped Maize,’ in addition to its unusual foliage, it produces edible kernels on the cob.  This corn originated in Japan over 100 years ago but was only recently brought into the nursery trade.

Speaking of colorful, consider the idea of strawberry popcorn.  Bright red kernels are borne on cobs only two to three inches long.  Kernels are small but tasty when popped.
You can find seeds of dozens of exotic, heirloom corn varieties at rareseeds.com.

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