10 Surprising Facts About Sweet Corn

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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: http://www.the-scientist.com

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.: steemit.com

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: http://www.epicurious.com

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!

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Corn bears male flowers (tassel) on top and female flowers (silks) below. Pollen has to move from the male flowers to the female ones. Source: passel.unl.edu

Sweet corn or maize (Zea mays saccharata) is essentially the only vegetable pollinized by wind. And for that reason, it should planted in groups so that pollen from the male flowers (in the tassel above the plant) will readily fall on the female flowers below (the silk at the end of each ear of corn). If pollination is poor, the cobs will be deformed with only sporadic kernels.

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Corn is usually grown in blocks to ensure good pollination. Source: samwarren55.wordpress.com

Farmers easily solve this problem with massive monocultures: row upon endless row of corn. In the home garden, corn is typically planted in “blocks” (several tight rows forming a square or rectangle) rather than a single row, where pollination might be spotty. However, such a concentration of corn plants tends to attract corn ear worm and other corn insects, not to mention raccoons. That’s why you might want to consider the method Native Americans used: sowing 4-6 seeds together in a tight circle (called a “hill”, although it isn’t necessarily mounded up).

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Corn grown in hills as per the Amerindian three-sisters method (along with beans and squash). Source : www.thesurvivalgardener.com

The latter technique makes for an attractive effect (corn can be as beautiful as any ornamental grass when grown this way) and allows you to scatter hills of corn here and there throughout your yard, not just in the vegetable patch, but among your flower beds as well, thus avoiding the risks inherent in monocultures. And 4 to 6 plants growing together will ensure good pollination for all the ears.

An ornamental appearance, abundant, productive ears, and good eating: what more could you ask of corn?20180617A passel.unl.edu