Popcorn Made to Order

A corn kernel has three main parts: the outer pericarp, the starchy endosperm on the inside and a bit of germ, which is the embryonic corn plant.  Flint corns are mostly endosperm which can contain 14-15% moisture by weight.  Flint corns, also have a pericarp which is thick and tough. When the kernel is heated to 300°F the water (and some oils) in the endosperm are unable to escape the kernel as steam because of the "enamel"hard pericarp of the popcorn varieties.  The pericarp holds until the steam reaches about 350 degrees.  There is quite a bit of pressure that builds and eventually the pericarp explodes and the intense pressure literally expands the starch and proteins of the endosperm as an airy foam.  "Pop!"

Keeping the steam inside until the whole thing blasts apart in one super-heated POP is what distinguishes popcorn from other flint corns.  Some very specialized breeding today centers on getting the pericarp to disintegrate in the explosion.  Often it forms two chewy hulls attached to the corn ball.  Japanese Hulless is an old open pollinated variety which is used in this kind of breeding work.  Another concern is the drying and storage of the corn so that just the right amount of moisture is contained in the endosperm for the kernel to reach it's expansion potential.  Drying the cobs for a few weeks in a sheltered area at normal room temperature will probably do it.  Then seal the kernels in a jar and store in a cool place.  No dessicant please.
 

Long Island Seed's new"Autumn Delight" 

Long Island Seed's new"Autumn Delight" 

Autumn Delight is a popcorn in progress like many of our breeding developments and like most all of them it depends on the work of so many others starting with the original Americans.  Popcorn was grown by the Indians of Mexico and the Southwest thousands of years ago and it was distributed all the way north to the Dakotas and New England through pre Columbian trade routes where it became adapted to the growing conditions and needs of each tribe.  There are descriptions of the preparation of popcorn brought to the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  It wasn't just a snack food but used in the making of native fermented beverages and a variety of cooked foods like stews.  Mostly lost, are the ceremonial uses of distinct corns maintained for color or kernel shape.  Corn was an important cultural element and the natives caring for their tribal corns did a better job of preserving the diversity and gene pool of maiz than we have since the advent of the modern "hybrids".  

Popping corn is a type of flint corn.  Flint corns are sold at farmstands as decorative Indian Corns with their multicolored kernels.  They are also favored corns in the northeast because they have a tough pericarp that prevents the corn from molding in damp conditions.  Flour and Sweet Corn is much more difficult to store unless conditions are very dry.  Natives could secure their stash of flint corn in underground storage caches without the same concern about their grain rotting.  Often the flint corn would be ground into a very hard meal.  Not all flint corn will pop like popcorn does and so;  as decorative as the bundle of Indian Corn you hang on the door, it's just not going to do much in your corn popper.  Grind it up for an authentic corn meal and make some fried bread or hush puppies.  Most people don't though.

That's a shame I thought. 

And so for the last few years I've been planting really good quality popcorn.  Those that have good to excellent expansion ratio.  To these I introduce "Indian Corn" genetics.  There are colorful little popcorn cobs that you see bunched up for decorations like Cutie Pops.  We worked with those for a while.  Very nice color spectrum but very very small popcorn kernels.  My interest is in a larger good quality popcorn with nice large decorative ears.  Hang it up like bunched Indian Corn, take it off the door after Thanksgiving dinner; then pop it, maybe in a covered frying pan over a crackling wood fire (do I digress?) for a traditional snack.  I appreciate the work of Southern Seed Exchange, Harris Seeds and J.L. Hudson, Seedsman as I use some of their cultivars to produce the subdued Earth tones I like in "Autumn Delight".

Almost always something surprises me as I work through one project after another and I'm a bit puzzled where it came from.  Such is this mid-sized popcorn.  One plant in the entire field produced these three multicolored cobs.  Good looking and good popping but what startled me were the very attractive purple husks.  I've seen this trait in some Indian Corns and Sweet Corns.  For a while I was interested in breeding the genetics of foliage corns into my popcorns.  I'm wondering if this harkens to those generally unsuccessful breeding experiments!  One of the decisions I will have to make next year is whether to isolate this from the others or allow more crossing with my main popcorn project, "Autumn Delight" in order to develop a percentage of purple husks in the mix.

Revisiting Rainbow Inca Sweet Corn

Alan Kapuler, the legendary breeder from Oregon developed the beautiful Rainbow Inca Sweet Corn.  Many of his developments are so unique that they have inspired other breeders like me. Take something great, and with a slight twist you've made it your own. You can't lose when you start with great genetics.  Because of Mushroom's (or Shroom's) great commitment to the free exchange of genetics, I don't figure he would mind if I do the same to produce an updated variation of his Rainbow Inca well suited for the Long Island palate.  I selected just the red and blue kernels from Rainbow Sweet and grew them in alternating rows with large kernel sweet corns which are proven performers for us.  Lochief is one of our favorite hybrid "su" corns and one that we selected to intercrop.  It's been around for long enough to be considered a mainstream commercial variety and is still being produced for farmers.  We also found a white homozygous 'se' type with larger that normal kernels and similar shape to Inca Sweet kernels.  Corn does benefit by hybridization even if just "on occasion".  A little diversity goes a long way in Sweet Corn.  We saw almost immediate results of the cross in the ears we picked this summer.  A nice blending of all colors, sweetness and texture.  Next year we expect even greater things when we plant the F1 seed. Save the seed of a hybrid. "Am I crazy?", you say. Sure, crazy like a fox. If I've learned one thing from the great breeders, it's to take chances. Go the distance.

The Revisited Rainbow Inca, like the original is truly an art.  Look at those big kernels.  Not just a sweet corn but a corn that gives tribute to the past and diversity of maiz in every wonderful, smoky bite. 

The Revisited Rainbow Inca, like the original is truly an art.  Look at those big kernels.  Not just a sweet corn but a corn that gives tribute to the past and diversity of maiz in every wonderful, smoky bite. 

Get a copy of the Peace Seed Catalog.  Alan's plant developments and introductions are truly inspired.

Get a copy of the Peace Seed Catalog.  Alan's plant developments and introductions are truly inspired.

Seeds of Change, the seed company that Alan was part of in it's formative years was influenced by his interest in open-polllinated seeds and organic cultural practices and still market the colorful open-pollinated Rainbow Inca Sweet Corn.   Home gardeners and organic farmers have been well served by hiswork.

His own Peace Seeds is less commercial and more personal and offers a way for Alan to get people thinking about their relation to plants and the relationships between living things:  Seeds are Atoms.  Reading a Peace Seed Catalog and the Peace Seed Journals, on occassion is a bit like reading the label of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap with Pure Hemp Oil.  But instead of preachiness (ALL-ONE!), there is a scholarliness which allows us to understand the science of those connections and kinships that are most important. My well-worn copy of Alan's 1991 seed catalog is a treasure. The covers pull together the work that Alan and Olaf Brentmar did on the coevolutionary structure of the plant kingdom (published in the Peace Seed Journals through the 1980's). The "kinship diagrams" are based on Rolf Dahlgren's modern classification of plants. The diagrams are visually beautiful in the way that relationships between plant families are so well shown by their "groupings". I started teaching Botany in 1991 and I don't know how many students have benefitted by understanding plant families on the basis of Alan's work.

Rainbow Inca cobs are especially good for roasting on the barbecue when mature and reaching the pretty color stage.  Use other corns for cooking in the kettle and sweeter taste.  Later, as the husks dry and brown, the kernels of the Inca like all sweet corn will shrivel a bit and can be dried for seed that can be ground into meal, rehydrated in stews or saved for planting.

Ashworth Sweet Corn Revisited

Fred Ashworth was a farmer and nurseryman who established the St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam in northernmost New York and worked for nearly 50 years improving and developing fruit and nut varieties.  The lake effect snows and short growing season was just the catalyst that made it necessary for Fred to breed farm adapted varieties where none were available.

Among his many achievements, his mass cross of corns selected from many short season types bears his name and has endured over 30 years thanks to seed savers who have discovered thevirtues of Ashworth Sweet Corn.  Fred said that the corn had been selected by mice who visited his seed stock squirreling away the sweetest which he planted.

It's sometimes hard to believe that corn on the cob is not enjoyed in Europe like it is in the U.S.  The reason is that in part,  much of Europe is a lot like Potsdam. N.Y. and climatic factors make it difficult to grow the typical heat loving corn.   It is particularly in northern Europe where Ashworth is gaining popularity.   Here on Long Island we can grow sweet corn (and do we ever) including the late varieties with their large cobs and many row of kernels like Stowell's Evergreen.   Bi-color sweet corn is probably the number one selling product at local farmstands in August and September.

You don't see the yellow kerneled Ashworth Sweet Corn much on Long Island.  Most folks might not see the need to grow it but Ashworth is my earliest corn and it has a special place in my garden since I can harvest it by July 4.  Growing up, we had a saying, that corn had to be knee high by the 4th of July.  Ashworth certainly does one better.  Corn in 60 days or less.  Many Long Islander farmers do grow early corn but often with fungicide seed treatment and hit or miss germination.  No need with Ashworth.  And it's frugal stalks, only a bit more than 3 or 4 feet high aren't the big nitrogen consumers that take their toll on the soil. 

Ashworth is an 'su' corn like Golden Bantam and most of the sweet corns were until the 1970's.  This year I decided to sow Ashworth Sweet later and intercrop it with a mix of modern homozygous 'se' corns.  I enjoy the extra sweetness of these corns as well as the ability to stay sweeter longer after harvest instead of rapidly converting their sugars to starch as most 'su' types do.  But I enjoy the rich corniness of Ashworth (maybe because I grew up eating the classic 'su' corns) and the substance of the kernels.

The results were fast.  Pollination allowed some of the 'se' characters like sweetness to be transferred to the Ashworth just by virtue of being grown together.  You don't even have to save the seed.  Ashworth was noticably sweeter but then the 'se' corn was also affected by the Ashworth 'su' pollen but not that I could tell in my taste tests. 

When the husks dry brown harvest the cobs for seed.  We allow the seed to cure on the cob for a few weeks before twisting the kernels off the cob for seed saving.

ORNAMENTAL CORNS, FLOUR CORN and POPCORN

Ornamental Foliage Corns

It's odd how Hollywood has made something so simple as the wind rustling through a corn field seem so sinister that I have to pause at times to look closer into the darkness between the rows. "Was that "Shoeless" Joe in my corn?", I imagine. It conjures up thoughts of spirits, aliens, crop circles, evil children and GMO pollen spreading over the countryside. I shudder at the thought.

We are still searching for a corn marketed by the Geo. Park Seed Company in the 1960's called Gracillis. That was a yellow flint corn and had leaves that were green with bold white stripes. I haven't found it within the normal sources of germplasm but I'm hopeful that somewhere, someone is still saving seed of Gracillis.

Indian Corn- Ornamental Flint Corn

What is sometimes referred to as Indian Corn is usually a multicolor flint corn but it can also be a flour corn. The difference is that flint corns have a very hard pericarp and a hard starchy interior endoderm and Flour corn has a very soft endosperm. Flint corns can also be ground into a flour but their hard starch tends to shatter rather than grind into a powder. Because of this, the flint type corns make more of a gritty flour. Because the kernels of flint corn are so hard, they are good storage corns and were selected by many native Indian tribes in colder, more humid parts of North America for winter storage in great underground caches (sort of like root cellars). Unlike the softer flour, dent and sweet corns, these would never mold or rot over the winter. Indeed, they are much easier to grow organically than any other corn and tend to dry on the stalk very well even into the cold and wet fall.

Popcorn

Popcorn is a flint corn. Flint corns have a very hard pericarp (the outer colored part of the corn kernel) and an internal starchy endosperm that holds a small amount of evenly dispersed moisture. As the kernel is heated up in your favorite popcorn maker, this water begins to turn to steam. Since the steam is held tight by the pericarp, the pressure starts to build (like in a pressure cooker) until the pericarp explodes releasing a kind of expanded. puffy, inflated endosperm. Voila, popcorn!

All flint corns have the ability to pop, if not completely dried out (which might happen if the grain is stored in the open under warm, dry conditions for long periods of time. But the results are variable to say the least.

Japonica Striped and Old Gold

Japonica Striped is marketed by the Seed Saver's Exchange. It looks a lot like an ornamental foliage corn that was called Harlequin or Quadricolor marketed by the Geo. Park Seed Company in the 1960's. It is a flint corn with black to purple-black seeds. Japonica will pop but it's of poor quality.

Japonica is detasseled in our mass popcorn planting so that better popping genetics is transferred to Japonica rather than to accept poor quality popping transferred to our good popping types. Japonica will be the female in this case but will not contribute pollen to the mass cross.

Our mass planting consists of the very large cob colorful popcorns. Included are commercial popcorns known to have outstanding popping quality.

It's a minor player in the project and was planted as an after thought. We include it in our mass popcorn breeding project with the hopes that it might become a better popper and at the same time keep it's ornamental foliage color in future generations. Popcorn, like Japonica, is a kind of flint corn with a very hard kernel.

For a short time we looked at Old Gold as a possible contributor of foliage genes to our popcorn but after several crosses, it doesn't look likely.

Dent Corn

Old Gold is a dent corn or field corn. Nearly 50% of the corn raised in America are various dent corn hybrids raised for animal food. Not nearly as beautiful as the ornamental foliage corn though! Dent corn dries with a prominent "dent" where the pericarp shrinks because of an endosperm consisting of both soft and hard starches which dry at different rates. Yellow dent corn has a relatively soft, inner starchy layer which grinds nicely. It is the corn used to make corn chips and taco shells as well as dozens of other food products are produced from the corn meal produced from dent corn.

Dent corn is used to produce a variety of food products including hominy. See http://waltonfeed.com/self/corn.html for more information of the pickling lime preparation of this healthful product from dent corn. According to Walton Feed's website grinding your own corn to make meal and flour is worthwhile. "... nutritionally speaking, there's a big difference between the corn meal you can buy in the store and freshly ground corn meal you grind yourself at home. There's a couple of reasons for this. In store-bought corn flour or meal, the outer skin (a great source of fiber) and the germ which is loaded with nutrients has been removed. The grain millers particularly like to remove the germ as it contains the oils that quickly go rancid - something they don't want to happen before you get their cornmeal home and used. Unfortunately, it also contains many of the vitamins and minerals that make corn so healthy."

Flour Corns

Flour corns can also make nice ornamental "Indian Corn" for decoration although since the endosperm is made of soft starch, the kernels are easily crushed and are more prone to rot or insect infestation with improper storage. Since flour corn contains soft starch it is easy to grind into a soft flour. Foods such as tortillas, pancake mixes, cornbread mixes, and corn chips are often made from flour corn.

Parching corns are varieties of flour corns although not all flour corns make the tastiest parching corn (Native Seed Search have nice parching corns in their collection). Although common in the southwest among native populations, parching corn is a somewhat sweet, satisfying and nutritious snack with a long storage life. When heated slowly, the flour corn kernels expand only slightly and the seed coat usually splits when it is ready to eat. Heating can be done without oil or any other additives, even in the microwave!

Blue corn is another flour corn which is showing up in Mexican restaurants, health food stores, and some supermarkets where blue corn products are now being marketed. Blue corn, actually plants produce cobs of blue and mixtures of blue and white kernels is considered one of the highest protein-rich corns. The protein content of blue corn is 30% higher than dent corns.

Breeding a Patriotic Sweet Corn

I do like sweet corn. I grew up on Golden Bantam, the classic open-pollinated yellow corn and Stowell's Evergreen, a great tasting but late ripening white corn. We grew both side by side and produced a nice bicolor corn in the earliest ripening Stowell's Evergreen if there was still a Golden Bantam shedding pollen. First the yellow Bantam would ripen, then we would get the bicolor cobs (only in some years), and finally, usually in late summer, those big sweet pure white Evergreens.

SWEET CORN (Zea mays) family: Poaceaceae

SWEET CORN (Zea mays) family: Poaceaceae

It was fun to see the yellow kernels that showed up in the earl white ears of the Evergreen. Since the gene for white kernels is recessive to yellow, when a single pollen grain from the Golden Bantam made contact with a single silk on the ear of Stowell's Evergreen, the one kernel on the cob attached to that silk will mature yellow. Basic corn reproduction requires pollen from the tassel which contain the male flowers (essentially, just an anther) to fertilize the kernels of the ear, each kernel being a one-seeded fruit. The corn cob holds hundreds of female flowers consisting of just the ovary (kernel) and attached silk (a very long stigma). It takes a lot of pollen to develop a full ear of corn but the corn tassel with all of those dangling anthers can release to the wind an unbelievable quantity of pollen usually in the late morning when humidity lessens. The ears being fertilized depends only on which direction the wind is blowing at the time the silk is receptive to the pollen and the tassels are shedding the pollen. That's why corn is planted in blocks instead of long single rows. No matter which direction the wind is blowing, there is more of a chance that pollen will be transferred to ears in a block.

Collecting Pollen

Collecting Pollen

Trim the ear silks so they are even with the tip of the husk...

Trim the ear silks so they are even with the tip of the husk...

Preventing stray pollen from fertilizing ear using ear bag...

Preventing stray pollen from fertilizing ear using ear bag...

Pollen collected in a pitcher

Pollen collected in a pitcher

...then apply the collected pollen)

...then apply the collected pollen)

...or plastic cup

...or plastic cup

Breeding Patriotic Sweet Corn

The red anthers from Painted Hills Corn are shedding pollen.

The red anthers from Painted Hills Corn are shedding pollen.

On a whim, my son brought up the idea of breeding a sweet corn which would have kernels of red, white and blue (presumably for fourth of July picnics). I have grown sweet multicolor corns before. Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ has a nice collection of sweet corns that were grown by miners in New Mexico and Colorado and survived to the present thanks to Indian seed-savers. I also have grown Peace Seed's "Rainbow Sweet" bred by Alan Kapuler. I explained to Zak that producing an American flag in a husk was probably not possible. Based on my experience, maybe he could hope for mahogany/orange, creamy white and a kind of blue-gray blend. To prevent a muddiness in color I suggested that we breed a "red" corn and a separate "blue" corn. A new offering by Fedco Seeds is one of Alan Kapular's crosses between Painted Mountain Indian Corn and Luther Hill Sweet Corn (Painted Hills). It has nice red and blue kernels that we can separate out of the packet of seed and I like the description that tells of it's tight husks that resist earworms. Since Zak is partial to the flavor of the sweet "se" corns, we'll use a blend of hybrid white "sugar enhanced varieties as a parent.

In May, 2005, we planted our selected "reds" in alternate rows with a mix of homozygous "se" white sweet corns. In another block we planted our selected "blues", again with alternating rows of the "se" white mix. We used homozygous "se" types to have a better chance of transferring the "se" gene to the offspring. Using more than one variety of white corn gives us a greater chance that one of the white hybrids will mature at the same time that our Painted Hills reds and blues will and adds to the number of crosses we can evaluate.

It's no hassle to de tassel. Just grab the top and when you see the tassel beginning to appear

It's no hassle to de tassel. Just grab the top and when you see the tassel beginning to appear

We'll use the Painted Hills as the male parent and detassel the hybrid whites. Without hybrid white pollen, the ears of the white se types should produce mostly reds or mostly blue kerneled cobs since both colors are dominant over white kernel color and those colored kernels should all contain the "se" gene for extra sweetness and tenderness. We'll also get a crop of Painted Hills. A selection of blues or at least mostly blue kernels from our blue corn block and a selection of mostly reds from our red corn block. The ears will reveal the degree of success shortly (they're just beginning to tassel as I write this).

When the red and blue kernels from this year's crop are planted next year we should see red and blue kernels on the cobs produced and also white since the recessive whites will show up in the next generation. The same thing happens when you plant hybrid bi-color corn. You plant only yellow kernels but harvest yellow and white corn. Also, the colors will be muted during the edible "milk" stage. Bright colors develop mostly after the corn matures and passes the edible stage. Corn is fickle though (the complex genetics of coloration in Indian Corns and "se" hybrids don't help any) and I don't presume this experiment will work as well as Zak expects.

Nevertheless, this kind of breeding challenge is what makes gardening fun.

Incredible simulated patriotic corn, a must for Fourth of July or Bastille Day for those with shorter growing seasons.

Incredible simulated patriotic corn, a must for Fourth of July or Bastille Day for those with shorter growing seasons.

To produce controlled crosses between corn plants or a self-pollination, collect pollen. I'm using a glass pitcher placed over a shedding tassel. Shake the tassel to collect the yellow pollen. Note the contents of the pitcher in the photo (left) showing some of the anthers and about a zillion yellowish-white pollen grains coating the inside glass.

To prevent stray pollen from fertilizing kernels of a developing ear slip an ear bag over the ear before silks can be seen. Ear bags can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, VA. You can also use an inverted cup which is effective if it stays in place.

When the silks emerge an inch or so and while they are fresh and moist either dust the silks with the collected pollen. Each silk is receptive to pollen grains over it's entire length.

An especially effective technique involves cutting the silks even across the top of the ear husk. With your finger or a brush wipe an ample amount of pollen over the dense cut surface of the silk.

Replace the bag or cup and allow it to remain on the ear until the exposed silk loses it's moisture and begins to dry. At that time the silks won't be receptive to stray pollen.