Names and Kinds of Corn

The Latin name for corn is Zea mays. The word "Zea" is ancient Greek for "cereal" and comes from the verb "to live." Similarly, the native American word for corn was "maize,"

which meant "that which sustains." To Europeans, the word "corn" meant and still means the hard kernels of any common grain: wheat, oats, barley ... or maize. That's why the pioneers called maize "corn"—and why Europeans are still confused when we say "corn." If you are speaking to a European, call the plant "maize," and then there will be no misunderstanding.

Corn's high mutation rate has made possible many varieties to choose from, one for almost any climate or use. To help you sort out the hundreds of possible choices—there's a different array in each seed catalog—here follows a basic pathway through the possibilities. First you choose one or more of the eight basic corn varieties and then make secondary choices within those categories: color, hybrid or open-pollinated, standard size or dwarf (if available). Really, I've never met a bad corn variety. But with experiment and experience, you'll find one or more varieties and/or timed plantings (early, mid-season, or late) that survives insects or disease better, yields better, or suits you or your needs better than the others. Then you'll favor that one.

The 8 basic corns, in roughly chronological order of development, are Indian (hominy and flour) corn, popcorn, pod corn, flint corn, dent corn, sweet (and supersweet) corn, high-lysine corn, and waxy maize. Some of these corns, including Indian corn, popcorn, flint, and dent, are sometimes referred to as "field corn" because they are left in the field to dry on the cob and are stored on the cob. Sweet corn, on the other hand, is picked fresh from the stalk and hurried into the house to be frozen, canned, or dried. indian Corn: All the original corns, of course, were native American, or "Indian." It was they who originally developed the flour, hominy, pod, popcorn, flint, and dent varieties, and all the colors and color combinations of corn. Current books on Indian corn/beans/squash, etc., growing methods include Native American Gardening Stories, Projects and Recipes, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Burchac; Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians; and Brother Crow, Sister Corn: Traditional American Indian Gardening, by Carol Buchanan. For a fascinating in-depth study of traditional corn growing throughout the Americas, read the classic Indian Corn in Old America by Paul Weather-wax (New York: Macmillan, 1954).

Another great corn book is Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri by George F. Will (1917). In that book he described 104 significant, different varieties of corn traditionally raised by the native Americans of that region alone. Now all but a few of the varieties he spoke of are gone forever, allowed to die out in the blind rush toward oneness, the worship of uniformity: all corn is yellow, all corn is hybrid, all corn is of the sweet, field, or popping variety. Only that's not true, or shouldn't be.

By "Indian corn" we now usually mean old-time genetic lines of corn. There are many of these ancient varieties, and they come in many unusual and pretty colors of kernels—yellow, white, blue, black, pink, red, or colors in combination—and in many sizes and climate adaptations. Indian corn can be dried to make flower arrangements or heaped in a decorative basket in the middle of the Thanksgiving table. Indian blue corn has now achieved supermarket popularity as blue corn chips.

Some varieties of Indian corn are called "flour corn" because the special kind of soft starch they have grinds to a fine flour rather than the flint/dent type that makes the familiar cornmeal. Mandan Bride is one such "flour" corn— 98 days to maturity and multicolored. Taos Blue Flour is another. Mandan Clay is a red flour corn. Whatever color you start with, you'll get that color of flour (or cornmeal if you grind it only as far as coarse).

The varieties of Indian corn that are left are a treasure. Corn seed is viable only a few years. You have to keep planting a corn variety to keep it from becoming extinct. Here and there, despite all the vicissitudes of history in the Americas over the last several hundred years, brave souls have faithfully planted these few remaining antique breeds year after year and kept them going. Other devoted preservers have struggled to discover these remnants of old-time strains in order to help distribute and protect them.

You can buy Indian corn from Abundant Life (Mandan Bride, Mandan Black, Taos Blue Flour, Hopi Blue Flint, Hopi Pink, and Hopi White), Johnny's (Mandan Bride), Good Seed (Mandan Clay red flour corn), Talavaya (Hopi Turquoise, "pale blue kernels make delicious flour"), and Redwood City, which offers about 20 varieties. popcorn: Popcorn (Zea mays var. praecox or everta) is the only kind of corn that pops and turns inside out. It is considered by archaeologists to be the most ancient of the corns, popped and served for thousands of years. All popcorns are late maturing, 95-120 days. The nonhybrid popcorns are shorter than other corns (3-5 feet) and have smaller ears; the kernel is smaller too and is unique in having a point. They can handle more drought, less fertility, and more crowding (space rows 2-3 feet apart). Some hybrid popcorns have kernels twice the original size.

Popcorn's on the tough side unless you pop or grind it (makes great cornmeal). That toughness is what makes it able to pop. Compared to other corns, popcorn has an extra-hard outer covering (endosperm). When it has some moisture content (about 12 percent) and is heated, pressure builds up inside the tough endosperm that is preventing that water vapor from escaping until the whole thing explodes with a pop!

There are white, black, yellow, strawberry, blue, and multicolored popcorn varieties, but they all turn white when popped. Strawberry (hybrid) and Japanese hull-less (open-pollinated) are good varieties. You can get popcorn seed from Abundant Life, Johnny's, Farmer Seed, Redwood City, Harris, Shumway, and Southern Exposure, etc. pod Corn: This old-time Indian corn is described as growing each individual kernel enclosed in a separate "pod" or husk. The result is a very leafy plant that is most useful as a forage corn. Native Seeds/Search catalog carries it: 520-622-5561; 526 N. 4th Ave., Tucson, AZ 85705; [email protected]; www.nativeseeds.org,. Or buy pod corn seeds from DeeDee Wick, 4055 W Myers Rd., Covington, OH 45318. Or from Stokes Seeds: 800-2637233; www.stokeseeds.com.

dent: Kernels of "dent" corn (Zea mays var. indentata) literally get a dent in the top of the kernel when they mature and dry on the cob. Dent and flint are both ancient native American types of corn, and there are many varieties of either one, some very old. Dents are the most commonly grown corn for livestock feed. Dent is also a good kind to "parch." You can use immature dent, a field corn, like sweet corn for roasting ears and table corn, though it won't be quite as tasty. But field corn is mainly grown for livestock feed (both fresh feed and silage) and for cornmeal and hominy making. Field corn has bigger, taller stalks, larger ears, and greater resistance to almost anything than sweet corn. It has the heaviest yields of both ears and silage of all the corns: an amazing 150-300 bushels per acre for commercial farmers, who usually raise a yellow or white dent hybrid.

Field corn basically comes in 2 colors: yellow or white. The white is a late-maturing Southern field corn variety with white kernels that makes white cornmeal. The white isn't quite as nourishing as yellow cornmeal though. White corn seed (also popcorn seed and a full line of sweet corn, including open-pollinated sweet corns) is available from the Schlessman Seed Co., Milan, OH 44846; [email protected] norwalk.com; www.schlessman-seed.com.

And you can get four different kinds of dent (Reid's yellow, Boone Co. white, Krug's yellow, and Henry Moore yellow) from Leonard and Gerald Borries, 217-857-3377; 16293 E. 1400th Ave., Teutopolis, IL 62467. Time out for a word about this remarkable family. Although surrounded by a sea of hybrids, the Borries' dad, Joseph, never quit growing the dents of his childhood. He was one of only 5 stubborn corn growers who kept open-pollinated old-time field corns alive during the era when hybrids theatened to take over. But after the terrible 1970 corn blight epidemic in the hybrid fields, his blight-free varieties made a sudden comeback! "Open-pollinated corn will also produce more silage because the stalks grow larger. Quite a few dairymen are buying it for that," Joseph said. And it will dry down fast. The Borries family does a clover, corn, corn, soybeans, wheat rotation. Dad Joseph is retired now Like him, the Borries sons always have to be looking for new customers because, since the corn they sell is open-pollinated, once you make a purchase, you have all the seed corn you'll need from then on! They'll mail any amount anywhere for a very reasonable price. Send SASE for more info. flint: Kernels of flint (Zea mays var. indurata) don't get a dent because flint has less soft starch than dent corn. So, true to the name, flint kernels are harder than dent kernels and don't shrink when drying. The flints are all late-maturing, 100-120 days, but you have a better chance of getting a flint mature than a late sweet corn because they handle cool, wet weather better. They are also better nutritionally than most other varieties, make good cornmeal, and have outstanding capacity for crib storage. Kernels of dried flint corn aren't wrinkled like sweet, or indented as with dent, or small and pointed as with popcorn; they are smooth and hard.

There are open-pollinated, old-time Indian flints with interesting colors: black, blue, purple, or red. Rainbow flint has multicolored ears (available from Olds). Garland flint has kernels that range from yellow to red (Johnny's). Flint corns are frequently sold for decoration purposes. You can also buy flint varieties from Gurney, Nichols, and Abundant Life. sweet Corn: Sweet corn (Zea mays var. rugosa) was the first corn variety developed by European immigrants to the New World. First appearing in the 1880s, it is a mutation in which the kernels contain sugar in a water solution as well as some starch, though the sugar quickly changes to starch after picking. Open-pollinated sweet corns have an additional advantage in that they tend to ripen over a period of time rather than all at once as do the hybrids, giving you a longer sweet corn season and more time to get the crop preserved. Sweet corns are sweeter. That's the only thing going for them. Indian, popcorn, flint, or dent all tend to be more disease-resistant, less dependent on highly fertile soil, and more vigorous in germination and growth than the sweet corns. Dent corn has a larger ear with many more kernels than sweet corn. Field corn plants are larger and thus provide more livestock forage when stalk and leaves as well as ears are used as feed.

But corn on (or off) the cob, your table vegetable, is normally grown from one of the sweet corn varieties. It is a variety that you would ordinarily can, freeze, or use fresh as a part of your dinner menu. You can pick field corn and use it like sweet corn, but it won't be as sweet and delicious. You can make cornmeal or hominy out of sweet corn if you dry it like field corn. Most sweet corn is yellow, but there are also white kinds and a green one. The sweet corns are subdivided by maturity date. You can get an "early," a "mid-season," or a "late" sweet corn.

Early. "Early" corn generally means about 53 to 68 days to maturity, but cold weather could make that longer. Any of the three could be planted in early summer, but early corn can be planted when soil temperature is around 55-70°F You plant early corn where your warm season is short; if you live up high or way up north, you want a quick-maturing corn. Or you plant early corn to double-crop a limited garden area because, given a reasonably long summer, you could follow it with a quick-growing vegetable crop or a cover crop. In general, early corn will cooperate and grow more readily in cool weather than will mid-season or late corn. Even in warmer climates, some people choose to make plantings of early corn every 10 days or so from first planting time on to midsummer. And, since corn growing slows down in late summer when days are getting shorter, an "early" variety is also the best choice for your very latest planting. Early corn gets only 4 to 6 feet high and has smallish ears. It can be planted closer together than later corns. Figure on thinning it to 6 inches.

Golden Midget (65 days) is a very specialized early sweet corn—the one that has ears with edible centers, "baby corn." At maturity the ears are 3 to 4 inches long and can be pickled, steamed, or stir-fried, all on the cob. (Don't let them get overmature!)

Mid-Seasori. "Mid-season" corn takes 69 to 86 days to maturity. Mid-season and late corn need a warmer soil, 60-80"F Usually the longer the corn takes to mature, the bigger the ear and the more ears you get. So mid-season and late corns yield better than early. Thin to 8 inches for mid-season corn. Early Golden Bantam is a good yellow, 5-foot-tall, very sweet, midseason, open-pollinated variety with 61/2-inch ears. Most mid-season types grow 6-8 feet tall. Gardening and food writer Lane Morgan's favorite sweet corn is Burgundy Delight, "a hybrid midseason bicolor from Johnny's Selected Seeds. We shuck it and steam it about 5 minutes. It's heaven. It will hold its prime sweetness for several days in the field. We have harvested excellent corn from mid-August until early October from 2 plantings." Late. "Late" corn takes 87 to 92 days to mature and usually is larger yet. Thin to 12 or 18 inches for late corn. Country Gentleman is a classic white, late, 7-foot tall, open-pollinated sweet corn (kernel rows not regular). It bears 1-2 ears/stalk and the ears are 7-8 inches long. Stowell's Evergreen is another white, late, many-kerneled, open-pollinated classic dating back to at least the 1800s. Golden Bantam is an open-pollinated, yellow late classic (introduced 1902) with slender ears 5Vi to 6'A inches long. The usual late corn grows 7-10 feet tall and has the largest ears of any of the three.

Every seed house carries a good selection of sweet corns—early, mid-season, and late.

Supersweets Selection continues to develop the sweets. Now we also have the "supersweets," which are even sweeter and also hold their sugar for a longer time before changing it to starch. Many of them, however, will lose some of their value if cross-pollinated by another variety. But Shumway's Everlasting Heritage series of sweet corns have the ability to hold their sugar content up to 14 days and despite cross-pollination. But Lane Morgan complains, "A lot of people these days are into the supersweets, but I don't like them personally. I like my corn to taste like corn, and the supersweets taste like a candy bar." hlgh-lysine Corn: This recently developed variety has more lysine, which makes it a nearly complete protein food. Regular corn is short on the amino acid lysine, which is why you eat it together with beans, which are rich in lysine, in order to have a complete protein. High-lysine corn is raised like dent corn and is used mainly for livestock feed, although it could also be a fine field corn for human use. Order from Crow's Hybrid Corn Co., PO Box 157, Kentland, IN 47951.

waxy Maize: This is another new corn, an extra-digestible cornstarch specialist.

Other Considerations in Choosing Your corn Variety: After you've made your choices from the basic 8 varieties, you'll have the further choice of hybrid or open-pollinated, dwarf or standard size, and disease-resistant or susceptible.

Hybrid vs. Open-Pollinated. Hybrid corn varieties were first developed in the 1930s and are famous for their husky, early productivity, but you can't save the seed and get that marvel to happen again. And because they all have exactly the same genetic makeup, they will ripen basically all at the same time. Lane Morgan defends hybrids: "If you are growing field corn, the money you save can compensate for the lower yield. But when it comes to sweet corn, the flavor is the thing, and the hybrid varieties do deliver. People will need to realize that they won't get the same flavor from the old-time varieties, especially in cooler climates." Well, flavor is a matter of opinion. A more painful pro-hybrid argument is the one that hybrid sweet corns produce twice the yield of open-pollinated ones. That's why so few open-pollinated varieties now survive.

Standard or Dwarf. Almost the only problem with corn as a garden plant is its size. It takes a lot of room for what you get. Some Indian corns and all nonhybrid popcorns are on the small side as corns go, but typical sweet corn stalks grow 5-7 feet tall (some up to 15 feet). Stalks that size should be planted 6-18 inches apart (depending on your variety). You'll harvest only 2 or 3 ears per stalk from all that space. So rather than plant 50 percent of a small-sized garden in corn, consider succession planting or interplant-ing—or dwarf corn.

Dwarf corn is also ideal if you are gardening in containers. Dwarf sweet corn grows 3 to 4 feet tall, and can be crowded up more than any of the other varieties (4-6 inches apart). But the ears are also significantly dwarfed, half the size of standards. Native American dwarf corns have further value, because they are the species that are best adapted for drought and high-altitude regions. Golden Midget is a good dwarf yellow sweet corn, early and hybrid. It grows 2xh to 3 feet high and bears 4-inch ears, 2 ears per plant, with 8 rows of kernels. The white midget takes longer to mature. Use dwarf corn as you would any sweet corn. Disease Resistance. Corn is subject to a legion of pests, but there are varieties resistant to many of them. For example, if there is corn bacterial wilt disease in your area, you will want to get a variety that is resistant to it. Early yellow corns are most susceptible. You can get wilt-resistant corn from Burpee, Harris, Stokes, and the Vermont Bean Seed Co.

Continue reading here: Planning for Corn

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