10 Surprising Facts About Sweet Corn

Sweet corn (Zea mays saccharata) is widely grown all over the world except in areas with very short summers. It’s a tall grass that produces sugary kernels that can be eaten raw or cooked, straight from the cob or removed and served in dozens of ways: as a side dish vegetable, in salads, garnishes, creamed, etc., even in ice cream! And it’s an easy vegetable to grow in a family garden.

But did you know the following facts about sweet corn?

The world-record sweet corn plant was raised in a special greenhouse in Costa Rica. Photo:

1. The tallest sweet corn plant on record measured 10.74 m (35 ft 3 inches). That’s nearly 3 floors high. It was grown by Jason Karl in Costa Rica in 2011. 

2. The silk of sweet corn is actually the stigma (the female part). There is one strand of silk per grain of corn.

3. There are about 800 kernels on each ear of corn.

4. Sweet corn leaves were once used as chewing gum by Native Americans. 

Wind carries the pollen from the tassels of one plant to the silks of another. Ill.:

5. Sweet corn is pollinated by wind. That’s why plants are usually grown close together: so even a light breeze can carry the pollen from the tassel at the top of the plant (the male part) to the cluster of silks (the female part) at the tip of the cob of a neighboring plant. 

6. An ear of corn always has an even number of rows.

7. Field corn (maize) has been grown for over 8000 years, but sweet corn is a relative newcomer. It first appeared in Brazil as a spontaneous mutation on field corn about 1000 years ago, then slowly spread through the New World. The Iroquois gave the first recorded sweet corn, called ‘Papoon’, to European settlers in 1779. 

8. No need to pull the husk apart to check for the ripeness of sweet corn: you only need to look and feel. If the silks have turned brown and the ears have entirely filled out, which you can tell by feeling the end of the ear (it should be rounded or blunt rather than pointed), it’s time to harvest.

9. What about the belief you should set the water to boil before you harvest sweet corn? It’s actually fairly true! Heritage varieties, especially, usually get their sweetness from the su gene and their sugars start to turn to starch only 30 minutes after harvest. Even modern sweet corns, whose sugars hold on longer, should be cooked within 3 days of harvesting.

The color of the kernel does not affect the sweetness of the corn. Photo:

10. Some people believe that yellow corn is sweeter than white, but that’s not the case. Yellow corn is, however, slightly better for your health than white corn, as the yellow coloration comes from beta carotene that our bodies convert to vitamin A. 

Store the above information away and amaze your friends with your knowledge at this summer’s corn roast!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “10 Surprising Facts About Sweet Corn

  1. Huitlacoche, pronounced weet-la-COH-cheh, is a fungus that grows exclusively on corn, rendering it far more nutritious and protein laden than standard sweetcorn. In the USA, farmers work to eradicate it. In Mexico, it’s a delicacy, and dates back to Aztec times. It never ceases to amaze me that someone, somewhere at some time, looked at whatever revolting-looking foodstuff you can think of, and thought “Hmm, I wonder if I can cook and eat this?!”

  2. 1, 4 and 6 are new to me. I have heard about #6, but considered it to be a myth.

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