Japanese striped corn (Zea mays japonica) grow in a clump

We rarely think of maize or corn (Zea mays) as an ornamental grass, but in fact decorative varieties have long been available. I can recall growing Japanese striped corn (Z. mays japonica), with its broad leaves striped white and pink, as a kid (it’s been around since the late 1800s!) and there are now new varieties, like ‘Field of Dreams’ (available through Stokes Seeds and William Dam Seeds, among others), that are even more highly variegated than the old strains. Plus many other varieties of corn have green foliage, but ornamental cobs with multicolored grains. Usually called Indian corn, these varieties, which include ‘Painted Mountain’, ‘Earth Tones Dent’ and ‘Fiesta’, are grown for their ears that are then dried for use as decorations… or their grains can be ground into flour.

However, even ordinary sweet corn (Z. mays saccharata) can be grown as an ornamental… once you stop growing it in rows.

To turn sweet corn into a decorative plant, sow by groups of 4 to 6 seeds spaced well apart in your flower border rather than singly in long rows. You’ll be surprised as how attractive its long, gracefully arching leaves coiffed with upright panicles of yellowish flowers can be. Then just let the dried stems and leaves stand until spring for a superb winter effect. Used this way, sweet corn is just as attractive as any ornamental grass!

And growing corn ornamentally doesn’t prevent you from harvesting delicious ears of sweet corn either.

The Amerindian Way

The three sisters technique.

Of course, growing corn in in clumps is nothing new. In fact, it replicates the method used by the Iroquois people when the first Europeans arrived in northern North America. They sowed corns in “hills” (low mounds of soil) of several plants, often accompanied by squash and beans (the famous “three sisters” technique). Growing corn in hills remains popular worldwide.

Growing Your Own Corn

Corn is a warm weather crop and sweet corn is even more fragile to cold than forage varieties. Wait until nights are warm and there is no risk of frost. That can be in early May in some areas, even April, but June elsewhere. Sow your corn about 1 to 2 inches (2,5-5 cm) deep in rich, loose soil in full sun. If you want to hill up the soil following the Amerindian tradition, that’s fine too (and in fact, it often gives better results, especially if your soil is heavy clay). And about the only care you’ll need for your “ornamental corn patches” is a bit of watering during periods of drought.

Beautiful plants and a sweet eat: what’s not to enjoy about growing corn as an ornamental?

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