You hear about new ears of corn?

Breeders develop varieties that are tender and sweet

August 17, 2005|By Robin Mather Jenkins | Robin Mather Jenkins,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Drought in parts of the United States could make a relatively new variety of corn called Mirai more familiar. The variety, which American farmers tend to grow using irrigation in small plots, has been causing a commotion among corn lovers.

Mirai has been a hit because of its tender bite, sweet juiciness and long, full ears. It is just one of the new "augmented sugary enhanced" varieties that plant breeders have developed to please hungry customers.

Mirai, developed by Harvard, Ill.,-based Centest, has gotten the most press. But other varieties can be just as good, said Blake Myers of Siegers Seed Co. in Holland, Mich., which sells Mirai seed to farmers who grow sweet corn for roadside stands and farmers' markets.

Shoppers might see enhanced sweet corn with brand names like X-tra Tender, Gourmet Sweets and Multi Sweets, Myers said. Each of the brands includes a number of varieties, such as Providence ("creamy, tender and sweet," Myers said. "If you liked Peaches and Cream, you'll say, `Wow!' to Providence") and Vision ("very tender, very sweet," he said).

You're most likely to find these varieties at farmers' markets. Ask the farmers whether they're growing any of the new varieties.

The augmented corns are created using conventional plant hybridizing and are not genetically modified.

Sweet corn actually is a genetic mutation, Myers said.

"In the late 1700s, sweet corn was identified as a separate variety from hard, or `dent,' corn," he said. "In the late 1950s, they discovered a new mutation called `supersweet,' or `shrunken 2,' called that because the seeds shrivel when the corn is dried.

"Then, in the early 1960s, they came across another set of mutations, called `sugary enhanced' or SE. We've learned how to combine two or three of those mutations in every single kernel."

These new classes of corn, the augmented varieties, have the best characteristics of all the mutations: tenderness, sweetness, texture and creaminess, plus corny flavor, he said.

All the augmented brands are available to farmers as white, yellow or bicolored corn, said Jeff Siegers of Siegers Seed.

Corn color preference is regional, Siegers added: "Color doesn't have any effect on the taste. We've come so far from Peaches and Cream, and Silver King and Silver Queen. These new genetics are much better than even the new varieties of those old standards."

Corn's sweetness also can be a function of how long it takes to mature, said Myers.

"Corn is like a factory," he said. Because sugar is produced in the leaves, the longer the plant has to grow leaves, the sweeter its corn will be. A 65-day variety is automatically not going to be as sweet as an 80-day corn, Siegers said. "That means early July corn isn't going to be as good as August corn."

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