A type of corn

Collecting Corn: Why do Latin American Countries have more varieties of corn than the United States?

To many, the topic of plant varieties holds little interest. However, in countries like Mexico, the many different types of corn cultivated in the past are deeply ingrained in the culture, history, and traditions today. Corn originated in Mexico, and the beginnings of its cultivation nearly 9,000 years ago completely changed the way people eat1. Civilizations like the Maya, Olmec, Aztec, and Inca all have gods and legends that involve corn. Even today, groups like the Maya still value corn and associate the plant with life. Mexico has 59 varieties of indigenous corn, and Peru has 55 varieties, In contrast, the United States grows under 10 varieties, the most common of which by far is yellow corn. In Peru and Mexico, one can find corn of all different shapes, sizes, and colors, including purple, white, and blue. Why do Latin American countries like Peru and Mexico have so many varieties of corn compared to the United States?

While maize, or corn, is very central to the cultures of these countries, having numerous varieties of corn serves many other purposes. There, farmers have cultivated different types of corn for centuries. By growing and learning more about different types of corn, farmers have been able to identify specific uses of the crop, for example: catering to specific tastes, preparations, and most important, to survive in different environmental settings. Being a country of varying geographies, in Mexico, farmers have been able to find the right corn varieties which have “adapted to different environmental conditions such as different soils, temperature, altitude and water conditions2.”

The beautiful varieties of corn in these countries are being threatened by one of the leading seed companies, Monsanto, which specializes in genetically modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture. In September 2016, Bayer, the German pharmaceutical rival company, bought Monsanto for more than $66 billion dollars3. Monsanto has been known for using harsh pesticides and spreading and selling their seeds to many farmers. Ninety percent of the corn in the United States is grown from Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds4, U.S. organic corn even has traces of GMO in its DNA. Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn, resulting in the United States dominating Mexico’s yellow corn market. In 2003, scientists from UC Berkley found DNA of GM corn traces in the local crops5. However, governments in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica have rejected the use of GMO and requests from Monsanto to plant their seeds in these countries.

While some countries in Latin America are against using GMO products, other countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay have more than 120 million acres of genetically modified crops, most of which are soybean and corn crops5. There are many known consequences of the use of GMOs, like increased resistance of insects and weeds to pesticides used with GMO crops, the creation of hard to control weedy crops, and the unintentional killing of beneficial insects and non-target species4. Ninety-four percent of our seed diversity has disappeared6–that percentage is expected to continue growing with the ongoing use of harmful chemicals and homogenous crop use, negatively affecting the world’s environment and the identity and pride of cultures.

1. Novak, Sarah. (2012, January 21). 6,000 Year Old Peruvian Popcorn Reminds Us How New GMO Corn Really Is. Retrieved November 16, 2016. 2. O’Leary,, Matthew. (2016, May 20). Maize: From Mexico to the world. Retrieved November 16, 2016. 3. Mullen, J., & Riley, C. (2016, September 14). Bayer is buying Monsanto in $66 billion deal. Retrieved November 16, 2016. 4. Chow, Lorraine. (2016, January 15). 59 Indigenous Corn Varieties at Risk as Monsanto Eyes Mexico. Retrieved November 16, 2016. 5. Tegel, Simeon. (2013, January 3). In Latin America, a growing backlash against genetically modified food. Retrieved November 16, 2016.

Corn is literally in everything. You can’t go through a day without encountering types of corn in one form or another, whether it’s the hand soap in your bathroom (both the plastic bottle and the cleanser itself), your morning bowl of cereal, the gas in your car made in part of ethanol, the aspirin you take for a headache, the crayons your kids draw with, or the roasted corn you serve as a side dish for dinner (and it fed the cow you fixed as the main dish, too).

In 2017, the United States produced 14.6 billion bushels of corn. Most of that produce went to places other than your dinner table, such as livestock feed and industrial products, but corn is still a staple of human consumption from breakfast all the way through snack time. And because we rely on corn for so many things other than eating, the diversity in corn grown in the U.S. has decreased. Large corn farmers are producing the corn needed for feed and fuel and food products like corn starch and corn syrup, which is not the corn we eat off the cob.

There are six types of corn kernels: flint, flour, dent, pop, sweet, and waxy. Flour corn is mostly grown in the Andean region of South America and is used to make corn flour. Waxy corn is grown in China and has a texture that is more like glutinous rice. Grab some butter and salt, and let’s look at some of the different types of corn and how a few farmers are trying to keep corn diversity alive.

Types of Corn

Dent corn, which is also known as “field corn,” is an easy type of corn to spot — there’s a dent in the crown of each individual kernel of corn. It has a high starch and low sugar content, which means it’s not sweet and juicy like the corn you buy to eat from the grocery store or farmers market. Because it’s not meant to be eaten fresh, dent corn is harvested in its mature stage when the kernels are dry and then processed.

Most dent corn grown in the U.S. winds up as animal feed, though because of its soft starch, dent corn is used as a grain in products like chips and masa (a corn flour used to make corn tortillas). Dent corn is also used to make moonshine and bourbon. The majority of corn grown in the U.S. is yellow dent corn, though you may also find dent corn in a range of colors.

2. Sweet Corn

Sweet corn is what you eat for dinner (or breakfast or lunch — there’s no bad time to eat fresh corn). It has a high sugar content, which is why it’s desirable as a fresh corn. It’s picked while immature, before the sugar has a chance to turn into starch, in what is known as the milk stage. Fresh, sweet corn is juicy; the juice, or “milk,” is how you get the creaminess of cream corn.

This type of corn comes in white, yellow, and colored varieties, and at the grocery store, you’re generally just going to find it labeled as “corn.” You may also see super-sweet corn; this variety is sweet corn with the sugar content enhanced for a sweeter flavor.

3. Flint Corn

Flint corn is also known as Indian corn or calico corn, and it’s even harder than dent corn. If you see decorative corn (those fall-colored ears with the husks still on them), it’s almost certain to be flint corn. However, flint corn has a high nutrient value and once the grains are dried, they can be used for any number of foods, including corn meal, corn flour, hominy, polenta, and grits.

Flint corn that has a hard outer shell is what gets turned into popcorn. The kernels are dried to a point where they have a certain moisture content left; then when the dried kernels are heated, the remaining moisture turns into steam and causes the kernel to turn inside out, or pop.

This type of corn is grown mostly in South America in countries like Argentina. In the U.S., you may find it at local stores and farmers markets as popcorn.

4. Heirloom Corn

There used to be far more variety in corn than there is today, but industrial farming has led to a narrower selection, with only a few types of corn being grown by large farmers. The end users of corn want a standardized product that’s the same every year, so that’s what large-scale farmers tend to grow. Heirloom corn refers to corn that’s not mass produced and tends to be varieties that have all but disappeared.

Fortunately, there are farmers working to bring back heirloom varieties of corn. It’s not always an easy process, though, saving corn. In the case of Jimmy Red, it came down to two ears and a South Carolina farmer.

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Early morning tray full of the Lowcountry…Jimmy red corn and Charleston Gold rice. #jimmyred #jimmyredcorn #rice #charleston #charlestongoldrice #farmer #lowcountry #southernfood #southerncrops #southernprovisions #foodforthesouthernsoul

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Jimmy Red is a crimson red dent corn with a rich and oily germ that, back in the day, was known for making outstanding moonshine. When the last bootlegger died in the early 2000s, South Carolina farmer Ted Chewning got his hands on the last two ears of Jimmy Red corn. Chewning, a well-known seed saver, turned those two ears into seed and by carefully cultivating the seeds year after year. He gave seeds to other local farms and a few chefs, and the heirloom corn now has its own cult following.

This type of corn is used by famed Charleston chef Sean Brock; he even has a tattoo of the corn on his arm. Other Charleston chefs, including Forrest Parker and Jason Stanhope, use the corn as well, especially for making grits.

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#bourbon #jimmyred #highwiredistilling

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And Jimmy Red still makes a fine hooch. High Wire Distilling, also based in Charleston, was able to make two barrels of bourbon using only the red corn from a 2014 crop. Cementing Jimmy Red’s legendary status, the 570 bottles from those two barrels sold out in 11 minutes.

Today, you can buy heirloom corn varieties to grow or to cook with, including a corn that creates pink “unicorn” grits. If you can’t find it in your local store, it’s available online from places like Anson Mills or Geechie Boy Mill.

This article was originally published on April 23, 2018.

Watch: How to Make a Southside Rickey

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Different Kinds Of Corn – Popular Varieties Of Corn Plants To Grow

Fresh, sweet summer corn is a treat to look forward to when planning your garden. There are many corn varieties, from hybrids to heirlooms. Depending upon your zone, there are varieties of corn that ripen at different times of the season, various colors and even sugar enhanced types. We’ll go over some of the best kinds of corn so you can get cracking on your summer garden planning.

Popular Corn Plants You Can Grow

As you start your list of seed to purchase, deciding which corn plants to grow can ensure a big crop of this sweet veggie. However, deciphering those seed catalogs can be challenging. Among all the types of corn, you will also have to decide if you want normal sweet corn, sugar enhanced, or super sweet corn. The choices can make a gardener dizzy. A primer on the three main categories of corn can help narrow down the selection.

Standard Sweet Corn

This classic group is one of the most popular selection of corn varieties. The traditional flavor and texture simply sing “summer,” but the drawback is that they don’t store for long. More than a couple of days in the crisper and the sugars turn into starch. There are early and late maturing hybrids, making them a good selection for almost any zone.

These types of corn also come in white or yellow. Some of the standard varieties are:

  • Silver Queen – mid to late white
  • Seneca Chief – midseason golden kernels
  • Utopia – bicolor with fairly early harvest
  • Sugar Dots – midseason bicolor
  • Earlivee – early season yellow
  • Golden Bantam – heirloom yellow midseason
  • True Platinum – purple plants with white kernels, midseason
  • Seneca Horizon – early maturing yellow
  • Stowell’s – late season heirloom yellow

Many of these are disease and blight resistant with creamy flesh and standard sweet flavor and the young plants are vigorous.

Sugar Enhanced Kinds of Corn

These varieties may have up to 18 percent more sugar content than the standard sugar types. They hold better than sugar varieties but the skin around the kernels is more tender and sensitive to damage. However, this characteristic also makes them easier to chew. These are generally planted one week later than standard varieties.

Some of the better sugar enhanced varieties are:

  • Sweet Riser – golden corn with early maturity
  • Legend – another early yellow
  • Sweet Ice – white corn maturing early
  • Double Choice – mid season bicolor
  • Temptation – early bicolor
  • Whiteout – midseason white
  • Quickie – early bicolor
  • Silver Knight – early white
  • Iochief – late season yellow

The ears of sugar enhanced corn store longer than regular sugar corn.

Supersweet Varieties of Corn

Supersweet may also be called shrunken corn due to the appearance of the dried kernels. There is twice the amount of sugar as traditional sweet corn varieties. Because they convert sugar to starch much slower, they can be stored much longer. The seeds of these types do not germinate well in cooler soils, and yields from plants are significantly less than sugar types.

They are also planted later in the season. The kernel has a much thicker exterior, which makes it great for storing and shipping but can be tough to eat. Common supersweet corn includes:

  • Mirai – Asian variety, midseason yellow
  • Sweetie – midseason yellow
  • Vision – midseason yellow but germinates better in cool soil
  • Indian Summer – midseason yellow but kernels turn red, white or purple prior to ripening
  • Candy Corner – early season bicolor
  • Krispy King – midseason yellow
  • Early Extra Sweet – early golden kernels
  • How Sweet It Is – late season white
  • Gotta Have It – midseason bicolor

There are many more varieties in each category, but these illustrate some of the best types in each group. There is something for everyone. Satisfy a sweet tooth, harvest early or store for longer. Surely one of these will be the right fit for your garden.


corn germinationTime-lapse video, filmed over three weeks, of the underground germination of sweet corn (Zea mays variety saccharata).Video by Neil Bromhall; music, Paul Pitman/Musopen.org (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

Corn, (Zea mays), also called Indian corn or maize, cereal plant of the grass family (Poaceae) and its edible grain. The domesticated crop originated in the Americas and is one of the most widely distributed of the world’s food crops. Corn is used as livestock feed, as human food, as biofuel, and as raw material in industry. In the United States the colourful variegated strains known as Indian corn are traditionally used in autumn harvest decorations.

cornEars of corn (Zea mays).iStockphoto/ThinkstockRead More on This Topic cereal processing: Corn Corn, or maize, a cereal cultivated in most warm areas of the world, has many varieties. The United States, the principal…

Corn was first domesticated by native peoples in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Native Americans taught European colonists to grow the indigenous grains, and, since its introduction into Europe by Christopher Columbus and other explorers, corn has spread to all areas of the world suitable to its cultivation. It is grown from 58° N latitude in Canada and Russia to 40° S latitude in South America, with a corn crop maturing somewhere in the world nearly every month of the year. It is the most important crop in the United States and is a staple food in many places.

The corn plant is a tall annual grass with a stout, erect, solid stem. The large narrow leaves have wavy margins and are spaced alternately on opposite sides of the stem. Staminate (male) flowers are borne on the tassel terminating the main axis of the stem. The pistillate (female) inflorescences, which mature to become the edible ears, are spikes with a thickened axis, bearing paired spikelets in longitudinal rows; each row of paired spikelets normally produces two rows of grain. Varieties of yellow and white corn are the most popular as food, though there are varieties with red, blue, pink, and black kernels, often banded, spotted, or striped. Each ear is enclosed by modified leaves called shucks or husks. Many industrial varieties of corn are genetically modified for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or to produce proteins from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to kill specific insect pests. In addition, some strains have been genetically engineered for greater drought tolerance.

  • Ears of corn (Zea mays).Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
  • cornfieldRows of tassled corn (Zea mays) in a Nebraska field.© Julianne Gentry—iStock/Getty Images

Commercial classifications, based mainly on kernel texture, include dent corn, flint corn, flour corn, sweet corn, and popcorn. Dent corn is characterized by a depression in the crown of the kernel caused by unequal drying of the hard and soft starch making up the kernel. Flint corn, containing little soft starch, has no depression. Flour corn, composed largely of soft starch, has soft, mealy, easily ground kernels. Sweet corn has wrinkled translucent seeds; the plant sugar is not converted to starch as in other types. Popcorn, an extreme type of flint corn characterized by small hard kernels, is devoid of soft starch, and heating causes the moisture in the cells to expand, making the kernels explode. Improvements in corn have resulted from hybridization, based on crossbreeding of superior inbred strains.

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Although it is a major food in many parts of the world, corn is inferior to other cereals in nutritional value. Its protein is of poor quality, and it is deficient in niacin. Diets in which it predominates often result in pellagra (niacin-deficiency disease). Its gluten (elastic protein) is of comparatively poor quality, and it is not used to produce leavened bread. It is widely used, however, in Latin American cuisine to make masa, a kind of dough used in such staple foods as tortillas and tamales. Given that corn flour is gluten-free, it cannot be used alone to make rising breads. In the United States corn is boiled or roasted on the cob, creamed, converted into hominy (hulled kernels) or meal, and cooked in corn puddings, mush, polenta, griddle cakes, cornbread, and scrapple. It is also used for popcorn, confections, and various manufactured cereal preparations.

cornFresh corn and corn grits. ©dream79/Fotolia

Corn is also used to produce ethanol (ethyl alcohol), a first-generation liquid biofuel. In the United States corn ethanol is typically blended with gasoline to produce “gasohol,” an automotive fuel that is 10 percent ethanol. Although corn-based biofuels were initially touted as environmentally friendly alternatives to petroleum, their production diverts arable land and feedstock from the human food chain, sparking a “food versus fuel” debate. Cellulosic ethanol, which is made from nonedible plant parts such as agricultural waste, has a smaller impact on the food chain than corn ethanol, though the conversion technology is generally less efficient than that of first-generation biofuels.

Many parts of the corn plant are used in industry. Cornstarch can be broken down into corn syrup, a common sweetener that is generally less expensive than sucrose; high-fructose corn syrup is used extensively in processed foods such as soft drinks and candies. Stalks are made into paper and wallboard; husks are used as filling material; cobs are used directly for fuel, to make charcoal, and in the preparation of industrial solvents. Corn grain is processed by wet milling, in which the grain is soaked in a dilute solution of sulfurous acid; by dry milling, in which the corn is exposed to a water spray or steam; and by fermentation, in which starches are changed to sugars and yeast is employed to convert the sugars into alcohol. Corn husks also have a long history of use in the folk arts for objects such as woven amulets and corn-husk dolls.

corn productsProducts derived from the corn plant.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

By Lauren María Alexander|April 1, 2015

This month’s Variety Specs feature highlights nine sweet corn varieties submitted to us from the nation’s leading seed breeders and distributors.


Traits highlighted include superior eating quality, excellent kernel contrast, good resistance packages, and high yields. Read on for more details.


  • Company: Siegers Seed Co.
  • Ear length: 7.5 to 8 inches
  • Type: Hybrid, bicolor supersweet type, Sh2
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Disease resistance/Tolerance: Northern corn leaf blight, common rust Rp1-d, Stewart’s wilt
  • Days to maturity: 80
  • Yield potential: High yield potential for fresh and wholesale markets
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Southeast and Midwest
  • Other attributes: High sugar content and a strong clean plant. Easier pick compared to others on the market



  • Company: Abbott & Cobb
  • Ear length: 8 inches
  • Type: High Quality
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Disease resistance/Tolerance: Common rust Rp1-GI; Intermediate resistance: Northern corn leaf blight
  • Days to maturity: 78
  • Yield potential: High
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Southeast, Midwest, Northeast
  • Other attributes: Main-season variety with high eating quality and tenderness. Excellent kernel color contrast and tip fill. Consistent performer


Anthem Xr

  • Company: Stokes Seeds
  • Ear length: 8 inches
  • Type: Bicolor hybrid
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Disease resistance/Tolerance: Common rust RpG, some tolerance to Northern corn leaf blight, Stewart’s Wilt
  • Days to maturity: 73
  • Yield potential: Good
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Canada, Northeast, Midwest
  • Other attributes: Snaps easily, good tip fill, good husk cover, easy to harvest



  • Company: Syngenta
  • Ear length: 8 inches
  • Type: Supersweet bicolor
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Days to maturity: 78
  • Yield potential: Consistent high yield
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Widely adapted, and performs well in most corn-growing regions when managed properly
  • Other attributes: Cabo offers superior eating quality and excellent adaptability. It is a large, augmented supersweet variety that combines consistent 8-inch ears with great tip fill



  • Company: Rupp Seeds, Rispens Seeds
  • Ear length: 7.5 inches to 8 inches
  • Type: Synergistic bicolor
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Days to maturity: 68
  • Yield potential: Good
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Midwest and Northeast
  • Other attributes: A new first early variety with excellent ear length. A good eating quality corn that includes a dark-green husk package. From Seneca Vegetable Research



  • Company: Harris Seeds
  • Ear length: 7.75 to 8 inches
  • Type: Bicolor augmented-supersweet
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Days to maturity: 73
  • Yield potential: Very good
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Northeast, Great Lakes, Midwest
  • Other attributes: Very good eating quality, clean 6-foot plants, easy snap ears



  • Company: Johnny’s Selected Seeds
  • Ear length: 7 inches
  • Type: Modified supersweet (sh2)
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Disease resistance/Tolerance: Northern corn leaf blight, rust
  • Days to maturity: 75
  • Yield potential: Two ears per plant
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Widely adapted, does well in the North
  • Other attributes: Greatly improved seedling vigor and seed storage life compared to other sh2 varieties. Excellent flavor with sweet and tender kernels. Excellent husk protection and tip fill, and good color contrast between the white and yellow kernels



  • Company: Seminis
  • Ear length: 8 inches
  • Type: White Sh2
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Disease resistance/Tolerance: High resistance to common rust Rp1D, RpG
  • Days to maturity: 79
  • Yield potential: Good
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Midwest, Northeast
  • Other attributes: First white sweet corn option in the Performance Series trait package that provides protection from key above-and below-ground pests. Consistent performer with a high-quality ear and an attractive husk



  • Company: Crookham Co.
  • Ear length: 8 inches
  • Type: Synergistic
  • Fresh market/processing: Fresh market
  • Days to maturity: 68
  • Yield potential: High
  • Region(s) best suited for production: Mid-to Northern latitudes
  • Other attributes: Early variety with excellent emergence and vigor. Nice package with exceptional eating quality


Alexander is a former associate editor with American Vegetable Grower® and currently a contributing writer in Denver, CO. See all author stories here.

Heirloom Corn Varieties

Popcorn is one of the oldest and hardiest of all the types and can be grown where many other corns do not thrive. It can be planted earlier in the spring than other varieties, but of course it will cross easily with any type of corn planted near it. Since popcorn pops best when the kernels are over a year old, this is a corn that must be allowed to ripen on the stalk, then properly dried indoors before storing in containers free of insects and moisture. Freezing it immediately before it is popped will increase the rate of popping. I have included two old varieties in my selection that not only pop beautifully but have a flavor not found in modern commercial varieties.

Dent corns are characterized by a dent or crease in the kernel, hence the Indian name “she-corn.” This type of corn is starchy and is generally used for roasting, corn bread, and hominy. It is a type best acclimated to the South and Southwest, where it seems to have developed the greatest number of varieties. Flint corns are the northern counterpart to this type. The kernels contain a high percentage of opaline, a mineral that gives the corn its gritty or “flinty” texture when ground. Flint corns are normally used for grits and hominy, as are many field corns.

Flour corns or soft corns are characterized by a kernel that is mostly starch when ripe, and therefore lends itself to grinding for flour. All North American Indians involved in agriculture maintained flour corns of one kind or another. Even though they are believed to have had a tropical origin, corns with this genetic feature were among the first to be dispersed by the Indians to all parts of our continent. The Tuscarora corn on my list is one of the classic Eastern corns of this type.

The Indians of North America distinguished between two types of sweet corn, the “green” or unripe corn of most corn types when they are in the so-called “milky” stage, and a corn with heavily wrinkled kernels that is naturally sweet by genotype. The sweet corn of white culture is this latter type. Historically, true sweet corn was a latecomer, reaching what is now the United States in the 1300s. It originated in Peru, where it is still used to make chicha, a fermented drink made in pre-Columbian times. Sweet corn derives its sweetness from a recessive gene, a mutation that has made it defective in converting sugar to starch. This characteristic was utilized by Native Americans for storing slow-ripening late-season varieties as “fresh” corn during part of the winter or for caramelizing the corn while in the husk over hot coals. This slow drying process resulted in a sweet-tasting dry corn that could be eaten as a snack or used in stews and vegetable mixtures.

According to anthropologist Helen Rountree (1990, 52), the Powhatans of Virginia made a corn-and-bean dish called pausarowmena that served as a staple dish during the winter. In the late summer, “green” corn or a variety of sweet corn was harvested and roasted in the husk over hot coals until dry and slightly caramelized, very much in taste and texture like the present-day dry sweet corn of the Pennsylvania Dutch. This dry sweet corn was stored in middens and reconstituted as needed with water. It was stewed with two types of beans, a large pole variety and a small bush bean. This combination of dried sweet corn and two distinct types of beans constituted the real “succotash” of the Powhatans and related peoples in the Middle Atlantic region.

Planting Corn

All open-pollinated corn must be planted differently from hybrids. For best results, plant the seed in blocks or squares 5 to 6 rows wide. John Brown, a farmer who lived on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire and who developed the variety known as King Philip Corn, noted in The Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 175–76) that farmers in his region were still planting corn “the old way” in rows 4 feet apart in hills 3 feet from one another, four to six plants per hill. This method works well for heirloom varieties and will ensure good pollination with room between the hills for squash. Pole beans may be planted among the clumps of corn and allowed to climb up the stalks.

Among the Indians in the East, corn seed was generally treated in an herbal tea before it was planted. F. W. Waugh described some of these decoctions in Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation (1916, 18–20). After soaking in the tea, the corn was left wet in a basket so that it would sprout a little before planting. This treatment was thought to protect the corn, and may in fact have produced an odor to camouflage it from birds and insects. It had the additional benefit of separating viable seed from weak ones and avoiding seed that might otherwise rot in the ground.

Seed Saving

For seed-saving purposes, there must be 200 seed-producing ears in the garden. Ripe, dry seed corn is taken from 25 to 50 of the very best ears and mixed together to ensure genetic diversity. Kernels must be hand-sorted for color and all of the best characteristics of the variety. Because it is a mutant, corn propagated from a small gene pool will undergo inbreeding depression quickly and irreversibly, just as humans do when they breed with close kin. This is the reason for the numbers given above. Geneticists have determined that they represent the critical mass in the gene pool for continued diversity and the healthy survival of the corn variety. There is no way to get around this; saving seed for corn requires space because 200 ears of corn translates into at least 100 plants arranged in 25 hills if planted the old way. Furthermore, seed corn must be allowed to ripen on the plants, then allowed to dry thoroughly before being sorted for storage. Sweet corns will remain viable for three years; the others five to ten years, sometimes longer. Animals can be a serious threat to a seed-saving program, so it is always advisable to overplant with a certain margin of loss in mind. However, the gardener need not be helpless before the ravages of raccoons, nature’s most expert corn thieves.

Warding Off Unwanted Pests

Ears of corn can be protected from raccoons and squirrels by wrapping the ears with 3/4-inch-wide packing tape, the sort with reinforced webbing of fiberglass or plastic. Circle the ear with the tape above where it is attached to the stalk, then gird the ear about 2 inches below the tip. Allow 24 inches of tape per ear, but do not wrap the tape so tightly that the corn cannot expand properly in the husk. The tape will keep the animals from pulling the ears off the stalks, and since the tape is reinforced, raccoons and squirrels cannot properly chew through it. It also foils crows.

If crows prove to be a special nuisance, the Farmer’s Almanac for 1864 had this effective advice: “Soak a few quarts of dried corn in whiskey, and scatter it over the fields for the crows. After partaking one such meal and getting pretty thoroughly corned, they will never return to it again.” I would use the brand of corn whiskey called Rebel Yell. It seems to fit the remedy and evoke some of the sounds I now associate with the birds at the height of their raucous inebriation. Incidentally, it works.

‘Black Mexican’ Corn
Zea mays

Also known as Black Sugar and Slate Sweet, this famous sweet corn was introduced in 1864 by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, under the name Mexican Sweet Corn. It appeared at a time when Gregory was also introducing his Mammoth Chihuahua Tomato and a number of vegetables originating from New Mexico. The seedsman always remained coy about the true origin of his corn, but horticulturists soon ascertained that it was a hybrid created largely from North American varieties.

A commentary on the corn in the American Garden (1888, 299) revealed that an accidental cross between the Blue Squaw Corn of the Dakotas and a common sweet corn produced a hybrid similar to Black Mexican. This suggested that Gregory had crossed a blue soft (flour) corn with a variety similar to the white sweet corn brought back from General Sullivan’s campaign against the Iroquois in 1779. But there are also traces of flint corn in his hybrid, which may point in the direction of the Mexican White Flint Corn distributed to farmers by the United States Patent Office in 1854. A three-way cross is possible. Whatever the case, the origin of Gregory’s Black Mexican was more upstate New York than south of the border.

Origin aside, Gregory’s corn was an instant hit, at least in New England where short-season sweet corns had been difficult to come by. His corn is also one of the most popular of all heirloom sweet corns raised today. It matures in 75 to 80 days, so home gardeners do not have to wait half the summer for a crop. In addition to this, the plants themselves are small and well adapted to gardens with limited space. The stalks are about 6 feet tall and particularly remarkable for their pale green leaves and silks. The cobs measure 6 to 8 inches and are cylindrical in shape, about 1½ inches in diameter. The cob is white, with eight rows of slate-black kernels.

The corn is normally harvested a few days before it begins to change color from white to purple. At this stage it is eaten as a sweet corn. Once the kernels change to deep blue or black, the sugars change to starch and the kernels become tough. The ripe dry corn can be used for flour corn or for porridge (mush).

‘Country Gentleman’ (Shoepeg) Corn
Zea mays

This popular variety of sweet corn was introduced in 1891 by Peter Henderson & Company of New York. It is still grown commercially for canneries and is well suited for freezing. Thus, of all the heirloom corns on my list, this is one that is most likely to be found in supermarkets in the frozen foods or canned goods section. Many of my readers may have eaten it without knowing it.

Country Gentleman, named for the famous nineteenth-century American agricultural magazine, was created as a cross between Ne Plus Ultra, a variety introduced in 1882, and Stowell’s Evergreen, yielding a larger ear than either parent yet retaining the “shoepeg”-shaped kernels of Ne Plus Ultra. The stalks of Country Gentleman are 6 to 7 feet tall, with 8-inch ears. The long, narrow white kernels are arranged not in rows but in an irregular, tightly packed zigzag pattern, one of the distinctive characteristics of this variety. The corn ripens in 90 to 100 days with a flavor that is rich, sweet, and milky.

While this corn is widely used in canning and freezing, it is delightful, indeed at its best, when fresh. Its milkiness recommended it to the creamed corn recipes once so popular with Victorian cooks, but it was equally delicious in summer pies. The following recipe appeared in an article called “New Ways to Serve Corn” in Table Talk (1897, 284), a household magazine published in Philadelphia under the editorship of cookbook author Sarah Tyson Rorer. In the recipe, “butter the size of a walnut” means 2 tablespoons.

Corn Custard Pie

One cupful of grated corn, one half of a cupful of milk, salt and cayenne to taste, butter the size of a walnut, one rounded tablespoonful of cornstarch, yolks of two eggs. Bake with an under crust only, and when done cover with a meringue made from the whites of the two eggs, to which add a pinch of salt and also one of cream of tartar; no sugar. Brown delicately.

‘Gourd Seed’ Corn (Texas Strain)
Zea mays

Gourd seed dent corns were cultivated by Native American peoples as a flour corn, and because of their productivity, they are still best suited to this use. There is considerable evidence that both white and yellow varieties were grown in southern Virginia, the Carolinas, and other parts of the Upper South at the time of the first white settlements in that region. In spite of the fact that it is considered a southern corn, gourd seed varieties were also known to the Iroquois, who cultivated them in the mild microclimates along the Finger Lakes and in the Genesee Valley of western New York.

Porter Browne mentioned both the yellow and the white gourd seed corns in his Essay on Indian Corn, and noted that there were seven subvarieties of the yellow. There were probably many subvarieties of the white as well, although most of these are now extinct. He described the true yellow type as having 24 rows to a cob, while the white might have as many as 36. There was also a hybrid variety created by crossing Sioux (a yellow flint type) with the Yellow Gourd Seed, thus yielding a cob with 16 rows. Maryland White Gourd Seed, the most popular white variety in the late nineteenth century, also had 16 rows of kernels on its cobs, evidence that it too was probably the product of an early cross. Many of the old gourd seed varieties were crossed with northern corns so that they could be grown outside the South.

Although it was popular with farmers as a feed grain, particularly for poultry, references to gourd seed corn are spotty. A farmer near Sandusky, Ohio, described in The Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 178) how he had been growing gourd seed corn the old way by planting it in hills 4 feet apart, but then raised productivity dramatically by shifting to drill planting. One of the leading promoters of gourd seed corn, especially the Maryland White Gourd Seed, was seedsman George A. Dietz of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. His advertisements can be found in the American Agriculturist throughout the 1870s. Due to their high yields, as much as 255 bushels per acre, gourd seed corns continued to be cultivated until the advent of hybrids. Between 1940 and the present, many of the old varieties became extinct, but because of the corn’s resistance to a number of diseases, there has been renewed interest in it recently.

A strain of Maryland White Gourd Seed, now called Texas Gourd Seed, was discovered in Texas and reintroduced commercially by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in 1987. It had been taken to Texas by German farmers from the Upper South in the late nineteenth century and retains many of the characteristics of the original white variety. This is the gourd seed corn generally grown among seed savers. The plants are about 8 feet tall, with two ears per stalk. The thin, “horse tooth” or gourd seed — shaped kernels are cream colored and arranged in 18 to 22 compact rows. It is the characteristic shape of the kernels that gives this corn its distinctive name. The corn is resistant to drought, does well in clay soils, and ripens in about 120 days. The young, unripe corn can be picked “green” and eaten like sweet corn. However, at this stage of ripeness, I think it is best grated for fritters, puddings, and pies. Of course, it makes excellent flour, equal to any masa harina from Mexico, and as a coarse meal, makes excellent cornbread.

‘Ha-Go-Wa’ (‘Seneca Hominy’ or ‘White Flint’) Corn
Zea mays

Like other Iroquoian peoples, the Senecas have preserved a large number of ancient corn varieties, as Arthur Parker in his study on Iroquois Uses of Maize (1910, 42) has put it, “with a zeal that has in it a religious and patriotic sentiment.” Ha-Go-Wa is one of the varieties that the Senecas connect with their tribal identity, which is not surprising, since this is truly one of the oldest of their documented sorts. There is strong evidence that it was observed by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535–36, which certainly points to pre-Columbian origins. Therefore, as an heirloom corn, Seneca Hominy comes with both an ancient pedigree and a rich culinary history.

This corn is hardy and thrives in most sections of the country where summers are short, yet it also does well in the South, especially if it is planted early. Best of all, it is a medium-height corn, about 6 to 8 feet tall — perfect for small gardens — and if planted in early May, comes to tassel in early July. The corn yields two 8-inch cobs low on the stalk, and since its leaves are rather narrow, it does not shade large, leafy varieties of pumpkins or melons growing around it. Watermelons are excellent companion plants, particularly low varieties like Rattlesnake or King and Queen.

The kernels of Ha-Go-Wa are large, round, and white, often arranged irregularly as shown in the image to the right. Typical cobs should have twelve rows of kernels. Off-color kernels, such as yellow or red, which are telltale signs of crossing, should be reserved for cooking rather than for seed.

The Senecas use this corn exclusively for large hominy, small hominy (grits), and cornmeal, usually in the form of mush. The dry corn can be parched in the oven to create a variety of toasty flavors and a finer texture in the meal. The dry kernels can also be pounded to produce cracked corn (samp), an excellent quick meal, especially when cooked with beans. The very young ears or “green” corn can be eaten raw or boiled like sweet corn.

‘Howling Mob’ Corn
Zea mays

This variety was developed by C. D. Keller of Toledo, Ohio, and introduced in 1906 by W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia. Keller was interested in creating an early sweet corn to compete with the later-season sorts. Ripening in about 80 days, Howling Mob effectively filled this niche for market gardeners for many years. The name alludes to the crowds of eager buyers who are supposed to gather around when the corn appears for sale.

The plant is a vigorous grower, about 4 1/2 to 5 feet tall, with two ears per stalk. The ears measure 7 to 9 inches in length, with 12 to 14 rows of white kernels. The husk is extremely thick and is known to protect the corn from damage by the green corn worms that are normally endemic to early-season varieties. The husks are excellent for wrapping dumplings and corn breads, and for steaming fish and shellfish. Even though this variety is not old, the husks are quite well suited for making woven foot and bed mats of the sort made by native peoples centuries ago.

‘Pennsylvania Butter-Flavored Popcorn’
Zea mays

The origin of this corn is not presently known, although it predates 1885. Once popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch, it remained out of the public notice for many years until it was reintroduced commercially in 1988 by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a small seed company in Earlysville, Virginia. The flavor of this popcorn is unique. There are no commercial popcorns quite like it. It tastes buttered without butter, a feature that should appeal to popcorn lovers who want to reduce the fat in their diet.

The stalks of this variety are about 8 feet tall, with two ears per plant. The cobs measure from 4 to 6 inches long, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter at the base, tapering to 1 inch at the top. Each ear contains 26 to 28 rows of white kernels, which ripen in about 120 days. This and White Rice are among the most productive popcorns I have grown.

‘Puhwem’ (‘Oklahoma Delaware White’) Corn
Zea mays

This fine old flour corn was preserved by the late Nora Thompson Dean (“Touching Leaves Woman”), one of the former leaders of the Delaware community and well known among American Indians. The stalks of this variety are noteworthy for their height, ranging from 9 to 10 feet, some reaching as much as 15 feet. Each stalk produces two cobs with pinkish red silks about 5 feet from the ground.

Such tall corn would not normally recommend itself to kitchen gardens, but since the plants are extremely sturdy and deep rooted, they are resistant to wind damage. Therefore, the corn makes an excellent support for tall twining pole beans, such as Indiana Wild Goose or Lentil Beans. The shady space beneath the corn can be used for squash, small pumpkins, cucumbers, even small lettuces, Furthermore, Puhwem tassels middle to late August, thus it is a perfect late-season crop when planted with early and midseason varieties. Iowa seed saver Barry Haglan has grown this corn for some time and has found that it comes to crop there even later than in Pennsylvania, generally toward the end of October or early November. Based on this, I would not recommend the corn for areas north of Zone 6.

Among the Delawares, this corn was used primarily for making corn flour, which was combined with cornmeal, bean flour, or pumpkin paste to make ash cakes and dumplings. European settlers used flour corn in combination with other grain flours — such as two parts buckwheat to one part Puhwem for buckwheat cakes — or used it to make American adaptations of sponge cakes, rusks, or pound cakes. Puhwem can be used like rice flour in most baking recipes.

‘Sehsapsing’ (‘Oklahoma Delaware Blue’) Corn
Zea mays

Although this corn was found among the Caney River Delawares in Oklahoma and preserved in the corn collection at Iowa State University, there is a reasonable likelihood that it originated in southeastern Pennsylvania, for it fits the description of an old sort known to have been cultivated by the Lenape peoples from pre-Columbian times. Swedish geographer-engineer Peter Lindström noted during his visit to the Delaware Valley in 1654–56 that the Lenape peoples living in the vicinity of the present Bordentown, New Jersey, raised a black corn and that they had grown it for many years. It is possible that he saw a variety similar to Sehsapsing, which is indeed black when fully mature. The fact that it is also a 90-day corn that thrives in Zones 6 and 7 further supports this. It happens to be one of my favorites because it is ready-made for small gardens.

The diminutive plants grow no taller than 6 feet, often shorter, with one 6-to-7-inch cob per stalk. The cobs are generally 1 1/2 feet off the ground. Yet for its small size, this is not a stingy corn; the plants sometimes send out side shoots at the base, thus forming clumps or as many as 2 to 8 stalks. From a distance, the corn presents a wild, grassy appearance. For people accustomed to seeing endless fields of genetically engineered silage corn, Sehsapsing stands apart as a spirit untamed.

Each 5-to-8-inch cob contains 8 rows of succulent white kernels, which when eaten young are much sweeter and better flavored than most commercial sweet corns sold today. As the kernels mature, they gradually turn blue, then deep purple, until finally, when they are dry and shriveled, they become ashen black. Sehsapsing is therefore a Native American relative of the sweet corn developed in the nineteenth century under the name Black Mexican.

Sehsapsing has two primary uses. As a “green” corn, it serves as sweet corn and can be used in any recipe where fresh corn is called for. Once it begins to mature, however, the sugars quickly convert to starch. Therefore, it makes an excellent flour corn, very soft but very dark gray. By itself, this color is no more off-putting than that of Hopi blue corn. Mixed with bean paste or with other wholemeal flours, the color blends in.

Like the nubbins (baby ears) of Iroquois white sweet corns, the nubbins of Sehsapsing were also pickled in vinegar by early American cooks. According to Dr. James Mease in a notice in the Gardener’s Magazine (1830, 483), the ears were considered fit for pickling “when the size of the middle finger.”

‘Stowell’s Evergreen’ Corn
Zea mays

Perhaps one of the most popular of all American heirloom corns today, this old-fashioned sweet corn is still generally available from many seed companies, although there are now several strains. Much touted as a sweet corn, Stowell’s Evergreen was not originally developed with a sultry summer picnic in mind. Nor was it given high marks when it was first introduced. The variety originated as a cross between Menomoni Flour Corn and the Iroquois Northern Sugar Corn brought back from the Sullivan expedition in 1779. This hybrid was created and first grown by Nathan Stowell of Burlington, New Jersey, a few years prior to 1849.

The corn became known nationally due to James Jay “Manure” Mapes, editor of the Working Farmer and inventor of a popular fertilizer. Mapes is considered the original booster of the corn because he enthusiastically sent out free seed samples to readers of his publication. Public reaction was mixed. The Pennsylvania Farm Journal (1853, 40) remarked sourly, “He who expects to find this article of corn as much superior to the common kinds, as the ambrosia of the gods was to the food of mortals, will lay down his cob and pick his teeth in disappointment.” In a continuing discussion of the corn on the following pages of the journal, a commentator observed, “The only drawback to be apprehended… is the danger of its crying back to the original form from which it was produced — a danger that is common, I believe, to all hybrids, until long cultivation has fixed their peculiarities.”

What saved Stowell’s Evergreen, even after disastrous trials between 1850 and 1852, was the secret buried in its name, the one strength that Stowell had intentionally bred into it in the first place. The corn could be pulled up in the fall before fully ripe, root and all, and hung upside down in a cool pantry or garret. From these semiwilted plants, fresh corn could be picked well into February, thus prolonging the fresh corn season. This storage concept was borrowed from the Iroquois, who stored their sweet corn in this manner, and this is why the corn was called “evergreen.” In the era before canning, this corn filled an important niche in the rural American diet.

Stowell’s Evergreen is now raised as a late-season sweet corn. The plants grow 7 1/2 to 8 feet tall and produce ears about 30 inches off the ground. The ears measure 7 to 8 inches long and about 2 1/4 inches in diameter, although somewhat tapering and rarely filled at the tip. There are 16 rows of white kernels on a white cob. When dry, the kernels are wrinkled and fall easily from the cob.

‘Tuscarora’ Corn
Zea mays

The precise origin of this variety of flour corn is not known. However, it is assumed to have moved north with the Tuscarora nation when it joined with the Iroquois in 1722. The Tuscarora, who have given the corn its name, came from the Upper South in what is now North Carolina. Another old name for this corn variety was Turkey Wheat, a name also used in early Virginia accounts for a similar flour corn raised by the Powhatans and other peoples from that region. It is quite possible that Tuscarora is closely related to that ancient corn. Seed savers who have raised it in the South have reported that it does well even in Louisiana. This may support claims of the Tuscarora themselves that their corn first evolved in that part of the country.

Even though Tuscarora is still extensively cultivated by the Iroquois peoples, it has never received much attention by whites. H. N. Langworthy, a farmer living in the vicinity of Rochester, New York, complained in New Genessee Farmer (1840, 8–9) that Tuscarora was an excellent corn but little known among American farmers. The reason, he suggested, was that the corn was not “heavy,” and therefore not salable to distilleries for whisky or usable as pork feed. Because the corn had little use as a commercial crop, Fearing Burr (1865, 590–91) was not enthusiastic about it.

Its primary use is still as a midseason (120-day) flour corn. The plants are 6 to 8 feet tall and produce 12-inch red cobs with 8 rows of large, marble-white kernels when ripe. The cobs taper in diameter from 2 3/4 inches at the top to 3 inches at the bottom. The young or “green” corn can be used like sweet corn. The flour from the mature kernels is snowy white and extremely soft. The mature kernels do not shrivel when dry.

Langworthy challenged the editors of the New Genessee Farmer to visit his farm, where his wife would prepare a number of dishes made with Tuscarora corn, among them johnny cakes, breads, and pancakes with “fixin’s.” Mrs. Langworthy’s recipes are reproduced below from the New Genessee Farmer (1840, 25). Where she called for “salaeratus,” read baking powder (the chemical reaction is similar), and where she suggests tartaric acid, read cream of tartar. The Tuscarora cornmeal that she used was ground fine, to a consistency similar to Mexican masa barina.

To Make Light Johnny Cakes, and Indian Pan Cakes

Take two parts of Tuscarora, or other fine corn meal, and one part of wheat flour; mix up with buttermilk, or good sour milk, slightly warmed, adding a little salt. Mix rather thin for Johnny cakes or bread, and thinner still for pancakes. When ready to bake, add a heaping teaspoonful of salaeratus, dissolved in water, and stirred in. It will immediately ferment, and should be baked without delay, taking care to bake thoroughly if thick. If buttermilk or sour milk is not at hand, water may be used, and before adding the salaeratus, add half a teaspoonful of tartaric acid. Or, if preferred, yeast may be used instead of acid, observing to allow it time to ferment and become a little sour (a little of the batter left over from the previous day, will answer as well as yeast), then add the salaeratus as mentioned, just before baking, and the cakes will be very light, sweet, and wholesome, especially if made from the Tuscarora or flour corn.

‘White Rice’ or ‘Egyptian Popcorn’
Zea mays

This popcorn should not be confused with the sweet corn introduced in 1878 as Egyptian or Washington Market. White Rice is a much older variety, although not grown by whites until the 1820s and 1830s. Prior to that it was grown by a number of Native American peoples, including the Iroquois. The plants are short, about 5 feet tall, bearing ears 4 to 7 inches in length and some 30 inches off the ground. The kernels are white, large, and shaped like grains of rice, hence the name. On the ears of corn I have grown, there are normally 22 rows of kernels, so a great deal of popcorn can be harvested from a small patch. There is a red variety of rice corn, but it pops white like this one.

Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.

Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.

If you’re new to the farm world, you might be surprised to know that there is more than just the fresh sweet corn we eat in the summertime.

Source: The Robinson Library

Field (dent), sweet and popcorn are the most popular types of corn grown in the U.S., according to Iowa State University Agronomy Extension. Corn is classified by its kernel type.

Here are the six corn varieties, as defined by the National Corn Handbook Project:


Dent corn

Dent corn is also called field corn.

What it looks like: Dent corn is almost always yellow in the United States, but a few varieties are white.

Characterized by its dented appearance. The sides and backs of the kernels have corneous, horny endosperms. The core of the kernel is soft and floury and extends to the crown of the endosperm. Once the corn is dried, the kernels collapse and looks indented.

What it’s used for: More than 93 percent of dent corn is used for animal feed. It is also used raw in industry. White dent corn has a higher starch content than yellow dent, so it is commonly used in human food products. Dent corn also fuels cars and makes plastics, adhesives and starches.


Sweet corn

Sweet corn is the standard sugary corn. It was grown during pre-Columbian times by native American Indians.

What it looks like: What makes sweet corn different from other types of corn is that its sugary gene prevents the sugar from converting to starch during endosperm development. Instead, the dry, sugary kernels become wrinkled and glassy. Sweet corn is eaten while the ears are in the immature milk stage and the kernels are tender.

What it’s used for: Sweet corn is marketed fresh to consumers and not used as livestock feed. In the U.S., sweet corn is economically important. Most of it is grown in the northern states, and it’s also grown as a winter crop in southern Florida.


Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Popcorn is thought to be one of the oldest surviving types of corn. It’s growing conditions are similar to dent corn.

What it looks like: Popcorn has a hard, corneous endosperm and little soft starch. Usually, popcorn is like small-kerneled flint corn.

Popcorn kernels are pointed like rice or round like pearls. Primitive types of popcorn have thin seed coats, while varieties found more recently have thick seed coats.

What it’s used for: Like it’s name suggests, popcorn is used as freshly popped corn and in popcorn confections.


Field corn

What it looks like: Flint corn’s small soft and granular center surrounded by a thick, hard and glassy outer layer. The kernels are smooth and round, the ears are long and slender, but there aren’t a lot of rows and kernels.

What it’s used for: Flint corn hasn’t been commonly grown in the United States since colonial times. It’s more often found growing in South America, Latin America and southern Europe. These regions use flint corn as food and feed.


Flour corn can be traced back to Aztec and Incan origins. It was ground into flour by American Indians.

What it looks like: Flour corn is soft throughout the kernel. There isn’t a hard endosperm like other corn types. When dried, the kernels shrink uniformly with little dent or no dent at all.

What it’s used for: Once flour corn has been dried, it can be ground easily. Flour corn is commonly grown in drier regions. Outside of the U.S., the Andean region of South America commonly grows flour corn.


What it looks like: The characteristics of pod corn can vary since it is highly self-sterile. Pod corn can be dent, flint, flour, pop, sweet or waxy. Each kernel is enclosed in husk, and the ear is also enclosed in a husk, just like other types of corn.

What it’s used for: Pod corn is used for ornamental purposes. It is not grown commercially.


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Today, we are familiar with different types of corn. Flint, dent, sweet and popcorn are the most common types of corn familiar to us today. Flint corn, also referred to as Indian corn, as seen in figure 1 consists of a hard outer shell. Kernels on the flint corn range from colors of white to red. Central and South America are the most common locations where flint corn is grown.
Figure 1, flint corn

Dent corn, as seen in figure 2 usually called the field corn is the most common type of corn and is used in livestock feed. This is the type of corn I am going to sell from my Personal Project, and this is the type of corn market mostly focuses on. Dent corn is most used when making industrial products, and different kinds of food. This type of corn’s kernels are usually white or yellow.

Figure 2, dent corn

Sweet corn is the type of corn that can be eaten on the cob, and can also be canned and frozen, look at figure 3. It is usually processed into feed or flour. However, sweet corn is called sweet because of containing extra amounts of sugar compared to other types of corn.

Figure 3, sweet corn.

Corn Usage

As mentioned before, corn was an important factor in Indian diet. For their purposes, whole part of the corn was used by the Indians. Husks of the corn were braided while woven were used to create masks, moccasins, sleeping mats, baskets or corn husk dolls. As Indians had many purposes for corn, there are many purposes of corn today as well:

  • Clothing, and the fabrics that are sued to create clothing are strengthened by the cornstarch.
  • Animals that we use meat from to feed ourselves are generally fed with corn.
  • Ethanol used to power cars is made from corn.
  • Cornstarch is used to bind the textbooks and notebooks.
  • It is used in penicillin.
  • Corn is an integridient in the whiskey.
  • Oils
  • Glue
  • By today, our only limitation to the use of corn is our own imagination.

Work Cited:

Source 1: “The Story of Corn – History Detective – Many Uses for Corn.” The Story of Corn – History Detective – Many Uses for Corn. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

Source 2: “The Story of Corn – History Detective – Many Kinds of Corn.” The Story of Corn – History Detective – Many Kinds of Corn. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

Source 3: “10 Ways We Use Corn.” Mental Floss. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

Picture from the top: “Corn Seeds North America’s Native Vegetable.” Corn Seeds For Sale. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

Figure 1:”CORN / MAIZE.” CORN / MAIZE. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

Figure 2:”What Is Dent Corn?” WiseGEEK. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

Figure 3: “Sweet Corn.” ” Cedenco Foods. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

There Is More to Corn than Popcorn and Corn on the Cob!


Corn (also called maize) is a useful plant that is part of the grass family (called Poaceae). Corn was first produced in what is now Mexico around 6,000 years ago, from a weed called teosinte. While corn and teosinte share many features, the “cob” present in corn, on which many grains or kernels are attached, is a unique feature of corn. Some of the biggest differences between teosinte and corn are due to human farming practices and selection of teosinte mutants. Corn is dependent on human assistance for its survival, while many pre-Columbian civilizations relied on it for their nutrition. Nowadays, corn continues to be one of the most important grain crops in the world, and corn is a central part of the diet of many people. In some cases, corn is eaten as a side dish, and in some places like Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and some African countries, corn makes up the main component of their cuisine. Such diverse cuisine relies, in turn, on the use of hundreds of different maize varieties, called landraces, which need different growth conditions and differ in color, size, and flavor. On the American continent, landraces are kept and actively modified by small farmers. These local farming methods are very important for maintaining the genetic diversity of corn, which needs to be understood and protected to adapt to the changes in the environment that are likely to happen in the future, due to climate change.

Corn: A Unique Member of a Very Popular Plant Family

Corn—also known as maize, goes by the scientific name Zea mays subsp. mays, and is a part of the grass family or Poaceae. With approximately 12,000 species , the grass family has members almost all over the world. You can find grasses almost anywhere: your front lawn, the prairies, the African savannah, many forests and deserts, near the ocean and up high in the mountains.

While corn is quite special in its own way, it is not the only important crop that is part of the grass family. All edible species of rice, wheat, millet, rye, barley, sorghum, oats, even bamboo and last but not least, sugarcane, are members of the Poaceae.

Corn is a plant that humans have helped to create over thousands of years. It is very unlikely that corn would exist, as we know it today, without human help. While you may think that plants humans grow for food are always pretty dependent on human hands for their survival and reproduction, many of these plants could happily live back in the wild. But this is definitely not the case for corn, and there are good reasons why! Keep reading to find out.

The Genetic Origins of Corn

Corn and its cob are quite unique within the grass family. Think about the spike of wheat or rice. They look very different from a corn’s cob and even if we take a look at corn’s closest relatives, tall, weedy grasses called teosintes, their “cobs” and kernels look nothing like corn’s! Teosinte cobs have few seeds, and each seed is covered with a hard shell made of silica (the same material glass is made of), which is quite good for surviving fire, drought, and even being ingested by animals. By contrast, corn has “naked” seeds, and its cob is the product of the movement, during development, of the silica seed covers to the bottom of the kernel, forming a massive, tough structure (called a spike), from which kernels cannot get loose (see Figure 1 for a comparison). The cause of this huge change from the structure of teosinte to corn is actually simple: during the long process of creating corn for human use, called domestication, without knowing they were doing it, humans selected those teosinte plants that had a mutation in a gene called teosinte glume architecture 1 (tga1). This gene guides silica formation around the seed and humans selected atypical forms of teosinte plants (mutants) where this gene did not produce as much tga1 protein, which translated into loosing the silica cover but gaining a cob .

  • Figure 1
  • In this figure you can see a comparison of rice, wheat, teosinte, and corn spikes. A seed for each grass is also drawn. Note how different corn’s spike is from the other type of spikes. In the case of teosinte and corn, look at the differences in the number and shape of their seeds. Corn, in contrast with teosinte, has a “naked” seed, with only a little part of the silica shell present where it attaches to the cob (right). Rice and wheat appear larger than they really are. Figure by Luis Fernando Sobrado/Zemperi.

Another difference between corn and teosinte is that corn is covered by multiple layers of husk leaves, which prevents small animals and birds from eating and spreading the seeds. In teosinte, the husk will eventually open by itself, but the husks of corn never completely open by themselves. We, humans, have to open them. Corn has also evolved to differ in other ways from teosinte. For example, corn typically has a single stalk instead of many stalks. These two traits—a leafy husk and a single stalk, are related and came to exist together in the corn plant through human selection of teosinte plants that happened to have mutations in another gene called teosinte branched 1 (tb1). The mutant version of tb1 creates plants that have something called apical dominance, in which branches on the stalk are suppressed, and additional layers of leaves are added to the cob . It has also been shown that corn and teosinte have different kinds of soil microorganisms associated with them. Read more about this in the Frontiers for Young Minds article by Jennifer Schmidt and Amélie Gaudin.

So, how long ago did corn, as we know it, come to exist? We can use a scientific approach called genetics to estimate when corn originated. In genetics, we study genes, which are the hereditary particles that are passed along one generation after another through sexual reproduction. These genes encode the instructions to produce all of the proteins that make us who we are. Comparing changes in genes from one organism against another, we can unravel part of the common history of their lineages. In fact, we can use genetics to study the history of any organism that has DNA. Genetic studies of corn are easier than studies of wild plants because corn has been used, moved, and stored by humans throughout its evolutionary history. Because of its widespread use, corn remains have been found in many archeological sites. Thus, archeology is another source of historical information as to when and how this plant was “taken into a home”… or domesticated. In the case of corn, its oldest recorded remains—fossilized cobs—have been estimated to be around 6,000 years old . These very old cobs were found in a cave in Guilá Naquitz, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Mexico . This evidence and other scientific data have told us that Mexico is considered the center of origin and diversification of corn and harbors about half of all the genetic diversity (genetic variants) of this crop in the American continent . We will later explain why this is so important to keep in mind in Section “Corn Landraces, Beautiful, Diverse, and Necessary for a Changing Climate!”

The Importance of Corn in the Human Diet: Then and Now

The domestication of corn on the American continent was a huge deal for the people living in this part of the world, as this plant became a very important crop for most pre-Columbian civilizations until the Europeans came to the Americas (which happened in 1492 A.C.). In pre-Columbian times, only the potato had a similar role in the Inca Empire, located in what is now Peru and Bolivia. Corn’s importance in the diet and in the farming practices of pre-Columbian civilizations on the American continent is similar to the role of wheat and rice as staple crops in ancient civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and different parts of Asia. Nowadays, these three crops, corn, wheat, and rice, are still the main components of the human diet around the world, and they provide important sources of nutrients for the great majority of the world’s population.

So, currently, which countries are the top corn producers in the world? According to recent data, China and the United States have the highest maize production worldwide, with 200 and 300 million tons per year, respectively, followed by some Latin American countries. Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have a production of 79, 33, and 23 million tons per year, respectively.1

Nowadays, many of us think about corn grains as food for chickens, pigs, and other farm animals, but corn has many other uses. In the food industry, corn starch, derived from ground corn kernels, is added into various foods such as pasta, candies, sauces, breads, soups, stews, and baby food. Some edible oils and syrups are also made from corn, such as fructose and other sweeteners, used in most sodas or even juices sold in supermarkets. Processed corn is also used in medicines, cosmetics, glues, paper, textiles, paints, and solvents.2 Corn residues or “scraps” have recently been used to create biodegradable materials similar to plastics. Another use for corn is to use its sugars to make biodiesel fuel for use in cars and other vehicles.

So, not only can we eat corn as an additive mixed into different foods, or as a side dish like delicious corn on the cob, or grits, or as a snack in the form of nachos and popcorn: around the world, there are many dishes—and cultures—that totally revolve around corn. In such cultures, corn is a central component of their cuisines. We will talk about this in the next section!

Corn-Based Cuisine: Diverse and Yummy!

In countries such as Mexico, most of Central America, Colombia, and several countries in Africa, corn-based foods are eaten every day. In places like Mexico, you can even have a three-course meal with each plate having some (or a lot) of corn. All corn can be prepared as a form of bread (like a tortilla), as soups, or as all-in-one dishes. Examples include a soup called pozole and a steamed and stuffed tortilla dough, called a tamale. Corn is also used to make hot or cold beverages, and even desserts (see Figure 2). In Mexico alone, there are approximately 700 corn-based dishes! The corn-based cuisine from this country is considered an important part of world history and culture by the United Nations (UNESCO3, 2010).

  • Figure 2
  • This figure shows to the left, some of the uses of corn as a food additive, where it is used as a sweetener in bread, soda, BBQ sauces, pasta sauce, or as corn oil. In comparison in the right side of the image, the use of corn as a main ingredient in foods is portrayed. In this case, corn is used not only for snacks like popcorn and nachos but also for many traditional dishes like tortillas, stuffed tortillas (“flautas”), and soups like “pozole.” Figure by Luis Fernando Sobrado/Zemperi.

You may be wondering how so many different dishes can be prepared from a single type of corn. Well, it turns out that there are thousands of different varieties, or types of corn, grouped into hundreds of so-called landraces (varieties of corn that are kept by small-scale farmers, which share similar features and genes). Many of these landraces have existed since pre-Columbian times (before 1492 A.C. ). In the Americas alone, approximately 484 landraces have been recorded over the last 100 years . These landraces have been adapted by humans to grow in environments with different soil types, altitudes, water availability, and temperatures. In addition, the various landraces of corn have different kernel colors, cob size, and flavor! In the third figure of this article, you will see a map of the American continent with some examples of different landraces, as well as the regions where they were generated .

Corn Landraces, Beautiful, Diverse, and Necessary for a Changing Climate!

The fascinating “rainbow” of American corn landraces, shown in Figure 3, is the result of the interaction among three important factors: first, corn’s biological qualities (its ability to grow fast and in very diverse weather conditions and types of soil, and its particular gene combinations), second, the environments where different corn varieties have been grown for over 6,000 years, and third, the diverse cultures across the Americas, whose people have been selecting maize varieties for different uses and flavors. Therefore, the huge variety of corn landraces will not always stay the same, because these three factors also change over time. This means that we cannot just go and collect lots of seeds from each variety of corn and store them in a fridge, expecting that the varieties we save will still be able to grow even when the conditions of the world change. This is the reason why we think it is crucial to preserve maize diversity in situ (in the sites where maize varieties are currently being grown), not only in seed banks (seed banks are called ex situ or “outside of their site”).

  • Figure 3
  • Here you can see a map of the American continent showing where corn was domesticated (the Balsas river basin in Mexico). This figure also shows some of the corn landraces that are currently being grown across the continent. Note how different they are in size, shape, and color! Figure by Lucia Campos Peredo and Luis Fernando Sobrado/Zemperi.

We recently investigated what might happen to corn diversity in Mexico in the future, under different scenarios of climate change. We found that some landraces will thrive well if temperatures increase, but others may disappear . Very importantly, we found that the more we preserve different types of corn landraces, we will be able to better adapt to climate change, reducing the negative impact on agricultural production (less yield per acre), as landraces will be more resistant to variable weather conditions than the commercial corn varieties that are currently being sown in many parts of the world.

Finally, it is also important to make sure that the traditional technologies with which corn has been cultivated for thousands of years are maintained. For example, in the Americas, since before 1492 A.C., maize has been cultivated using a system in which three different crops are grown together, usually beans, pumpkins, and corn are grown together on the same piece of land. This system is called Milpa in Latin America, or the three sisters in some parts of the USA. Different versions of the Milpa system are still used to grow these and other crops in Mexico and other countries in Central America. Even some of the so-called “weeds” that grow in the Milpa are tolerated and used for various traditional dishes (turns out that these weeds are both nutritious and delicious!) or used in traditional medicine. The Milpa system makes a better use of critical resources for agriculture: soil, physical space, sun, and water. This system is nowadays considered to be a very good method that has fewer negative impacts on the environment than other types of food production methods. By contrast, large-scale industrial farming relies heavily on the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, and heavy machinery, which all have huge impacts on the environment. Also, industrial corn agriculture is based on using maize varieties that are very similar genetically and as such, tend to perform poorly under difficult conditions (drought, extreme weather, and insect pests). These varieties tend to displace landraces, sometimes leading to local or complete extinction of local landraces. In addition, some industrial farms use corn varieties that have been genetically modified (GM) in a lab. Genetic modification involves adding genes from other organisms into the corn plant, to help it grow better under certain conditions. These GM varieties can cross with local landraces, potentially damaging them and the farmers who have them. Thus, corn plants that are very similar genetically can be useful in some contexts, but not in others, especially when it comes to diversifying what we eat.


Corn is part of an important plant family called Poaceae. It is the product of human selection over centuries, which made it have unique features such as a big, massive cob with hundreds of kernels. The differences between corn and its weedy relative, teosinte, are the product of humans selecting teosinte variants (mutants). Once corn came to exist, humans further adapted different varieties to different environments. These different varieties, which fed most of the human population before the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas in 1492 A.C., are known as landraces. Corn, together with wheat and rice, remains one of the central components of the human diet. Also, maize is highly versatile, as it has been used for fodder, food, and industrial purposes. When thinking about food, there are countries whose people rely heavily on corn-based dishes, which in turn are prepared using the many corn landraces that small-scale farmers have kept and bred for millennia.

The genetic diversity present in such corn landraces will be very useful to contend with the negative effects of climate change, thus, it is important that we preserve them, and the agricultural systems, such as the Milpa, where they are grown.

So, how many types of corn have you eaten lately? Try more! You will not regret it: corn landraces are pretty, tasty, and a good option for the environment.


Domestication: Is a multi-generational process in which a plant or animal population is taken from the wild and maintained by humans. One generation after another, a domesticated species is selectively bred to accumulate particular traits that are useful to us.

Mutants: A mutant is an individual that has suffered a change in its genes, such that it has different nucleotides in particular genes, when compared with other individuals of the same species. Mutations can potentially translate into differences in shape, growth patterns, susceptibility to disease, with respect to other individuals that do not have a particular mutation.

Genetic Diversity: Refers to the total number of genetic variants present in individuals from a particular species. Preserving genetic diversity is an important conservation target, as it can help individuals from a given species adapt to changing conditions or environments.

Landrace: Is a plant (or animal) variety that has been bred and selected by humans over time to grow in a specific environment, after its isolation from other populations of the same species.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Further Reading

Boutard, A. (2012). Beautiful Corn. America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate. Canada: New Society Publishers, 209.

Doebley, J. 2004. The genetics of maize evolution. Annu. Rev. Genet. 38:37–59. doi:10.1146/annurev.genet.38.072902.092425




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