Eye-popping decorations for the picking

Now's the time for corn to show its colorful versatility

In The Garden

October 26, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Sweet corn is great, but it can't hold a candle to the beautiful ornamental corn of fall. Marbled crimson and cream, slate blue, Burgundy, butter yellow swirled with russet, purple, blood red and more, ornamental corn is like a Fauvist painting on a cob.

While today we use it primarily for decoration, ornamental corn, also known as Indian corn or field corn, is one of the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash) that have been Native American diet staples for millenniums. Massasoit brought deerskin bags of popped corn to the first Thanksgiving. Native farmers, who carefully selected and bred corn varieties for color, flavor and use, had developed about 300 types in a rainbow of colors by the time Columbus showed up.

There are several different kinds of corn (Zea maize). Sweet corn is generally eaten fresh and, since it's primarily white or yellow, it isn't particularly decorative, though one variety, 'Black Mexican Sweet,' is white in its sweet stage and dries to a black. Pod corn (glume corn) is rarely used ornamentally, since it has a buff-colored husk covering each kernel that's also a pain to deal with in food prep. However, dent corn, which has a dent in the top of each kernel and comes in a wide range of colors and sizes, is often sold for fall decoration. Likewise flint corn, which has the hardest kernel and no dent. Popcorn, which has an interior protein shell that explodes to produce the inside-out puff we douse with salt and butter, is a flint corn.

While most commercial popping kernels are yellow, there are many colored popcorn varieties that make beautiful autumn decoration on the cob.

'Ruby Red' has kernels like blood red seed pearls, while 'Shaman' is a lovely iridescent bluey-brown.

"Strawberry corn, which is small and shaped like a strawberry, is a deep burgundy," says Ella Schwannecke, manager at Main Street Seed & Supply Co. in Bay City, Mich., "and it's a red color when popped." "I really like 'Cherokee Long-Ear' popcorn," says Cricket Rakita, general manager at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Va. "It has beautiful earth tones -- browns and yellows and dark reds and the ears are all different."

The key to popping the centerpiece (provided it's popcorn) once you're finished with it is to make sure the kernels are completely dry.

"You need to dry it about six to eight weeks, then shuck it, which is a killer," notes Ella Schwannecke. Shucking it is a challenge, but once you get a couple of rows started at one end, it's a little easier.

"The kernels need to be fully dry before you take them off the ear; otherwise they get damaged and won't pop properly," says Steve Bellavia, vegetable product manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. To be certain they are dry, Bellavia dries them for short bursts in the microwave before shucking.

The dent and dent / flint crosses, while not poppable, nonetheless make beautiful and long-lasting decorations that come in a variety of colors and sizes. 'Painted Mountain,' with 6- to 7-inch ears, ranges from bright red interspersed with burgundy kernels, to yellow interspersed with slate and black-purple, to burnt orange, gold, and black in a mixed ear, while 'Wampum' is a beautiful mini-version of that.

'Mandan Bride' is a multicolored Native American corn traditionally ground into flour.

Some of the plants are colored too. 'Japonica Striped Maize' has variegated leaves striated with green, white, yellow and pink, while 'Cherokee Pride' and 'Fiesta' occasionally produce purple or reddish husks.

Though the individual's choice comes down to personal taste or color sense, growers also select for growth habits.

"We want ones that don't blow over in a storm," says Bellavia. "We also want ones that will mature earlier."

Most corn takes between 90 and 110 days to mature, though a few, like 'Painted Mountain,' mature in 85 days.

"Growing corn takes quite a large area," says Schwannecke. "You need to plant it 6 to 8 inches apart, two kernels in one hole, and at least two to three short rows for pollination."

Rakita recommends planting corn in the ancient "three sisters garden pattern," which means sowing beans and squash among the corn rows.

"The beans fix nitrogen for the corn, and climb up the stalks, and the squash keeps the weeds out," he notes. Seeds are sown after the last spring frost in soil 50 degrees or warmer.

Almost everything -- deer, borers, rootworm, aphids -- attacks corn, though field corn is slightly less susceptible. Fencing, picking off bugs and timely doses of insecticidal soap can help save the crop.

Sources

Johnny's Selected Seeds

Foss Hill Road

RR 1 Box 2580

Albion, ME 04910-9731

207-437-4395

www.johnnyseeds.com

Main Street Seed and Supply Co.

Bay Farm Services Inc.

401 Main St.

Bay City, MI 48706

989-893-3577

www.mainstreetseedand supply.com

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

P.O. Box 460

Mineral, VA 23117

540-894-9480

www.southernexposure.com

Seed Savers Exchange

3076 North Winn Road

Decorah, IO 52101

563-382-5990

www.seedsavers.org

Gurney's Seed & Nursery Co.

P.O. Box 4178

Greendale, IN 47025-4178

513-354-1491

www.gurneys.com

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