Plant of the week: Corn

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Corn is the most common staple food in the world.  It’s grown on every continent except for Antarctica, and used as an ingredient in everything from marshmallows to fireworks and shoe polish.  It is a significant part of our diet both directly (thanks to high fructose corn syrup), and indirectly–through the livestock we consume.

Corn is high in carbohydrates and fibre.  It also contains some protein, and B and C vitamins.  When it’s mixed with lime, such as in tortillas, some amino acids and niacin are made available to our bodies for absorption.

Most of the corn on the market is genetically modified.  It’s hard to avoid GMO corn entirely, but if you grow a heritage variety, you can ensure that at least some of the corn you are eating has been proven safe for consumption.

Preparing corn

Some varieties of corn, such as the heritage variety Bloody Butcher, shown above and below, produce pale yellow cobs when the plant is young.  As the plant matures, the kernels darken and grow tougher.  This might sound unappealing, but it’s actually not.  You can eat the first few batches on the cob.  As they toughen, you can cook the cobs, cut the kernels off, and freeze them.  Frozen corn is perfect for chili and other dishes.  You can leave some cobs on the plant to dry, then grind the kernels into cornmeal or corn flour for breads, tortillas, and polenta, for example.  Some varieties of corn can be used as popcorn once their kernels have dried.

Ideal growing conditions

Corn likes well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil, and full sun.  It does not like cold soil, and frost may kill it.  Corn is a heavy feeder which takes a lot of nutrients from its neighbours.  Be careful what you plant next to it.

As it is pollinated by the wind, it is best to plant it in blocks of at least 4 rows, in which both the seeds and the rows are spaced a foot apart.  Do not plant different varieties next to each other, unless they mature at different times, or they will cross-pollinate.

Most commercially bought corn is treated with a surface coating that prevents fungus and disease.  Your local heritage seed supplier should have some untreated varieties for you to try.

Types

Often, we think of corn in terms of sweet corn, baby corn, popcorn, and cattle corn, but the six main types of corn are catalogued quite differently.

Friends

  • Beans, peas, and other legumes
  • Melons
  • Sunflowers
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • Cucumber
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Cabbage

Fun Facts

  • The average ear of corn has 800 kernels.
  • Popcorn kernels contain a small amount of water inside their thick-walled casings. When they’re heated, steam builds up until the kernel explodes.
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