Corn tassels too early

My Corn Plants Don’t Grow Tall

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Corn is known for growing into over-sized stalks that tower above peoples’ heads, so finding corn that is stunted and short can be disheartening to a grower. A few environmental factors can explain corn stalks that won’t grow tall, but it’s not the end of the world when it comes to harvest. You may still reap a hefty amount of grain from short corn.

Temperature

Corn grows by expanding its internode cells during its late growth stage when it does much of its stretching. The stalk elongates as the internodes grow. While shading can boost this growth, cool temperatures may slow it down by effecting cellular rigidity, stunting the plant’s height and foliage for the rest of the season. Fortunately, leaf size at this point will not affect grain size. The new leaves that are emerging at the top of the plant will contribute to grain size, and these will continue to grow if conditions permit. But continued cool weather may slow down leaf development, resulting in fewer leaves and limiting corn’s growth.

Soil

Soil compaction can create over-saturated conditions and stunt corn plant growth. Compacted soil restricts root development and disturbs its growth, forcing it into lateral branching. Plants in overly watered soil can also exhibit development and growth issues and appear stunted. Another possible soil problem is nitrogen deficiency. Corn demands a lot of nitrogen. Adding a nitrogen fertilizer to soil to replenish this nutrient may help corn that appears shorter than expected.

Yield

Unless your short corn plants are nutrient-deficient or suffering from excess moisture, short corn stalks should not alter yield amount. As long as the growth problem is related to shorter internodes, it will not affect grain size. Remember that some corn varieties are early hybrids that are ultimately shorter and have smaller yields than full season types.

Growing Corn

Corn is a heavy feeder that loves nitrogen, so it needs well-tilled and fertile soil. The plant prefers soil temperatures of at least 65 to 75 F and night temperatures above 60 F. To protect against cold and frost, install a fabric floating row cover with hoops supporting it. Avoid planting corn in overly moist soil because it can damage and stunt the crop. Planting corn too early or late in the year may reduce the corn’s height and yield. The type of hybrid planted plays a large role in growth rate and stalk height as well.

ALL EARS: Jason Karl grows giant maize in specially constructed greenhouses in Costa Rica. COURTESY OF JASON KARLJason Karl has been growing corn since he was a teenager. Starting in 1996, he began planting the crop on his family’s farm in Olean, New York, and soon grew curious about how tall he could make it grow. So he started experimenting.

“Seeing how tall corn can grow comes down to internode length and quantity,” Karl explains—in other words, the number of leaves a stalk has and the distance between those leaves. He learned early on that growing seedlings in a greenhouse greatly increases internode length, in part because the glass or plastic shifts the light spectrum reaching the plant’s leaves. He also learned that certain strains of corn were “night-length reactive,” meaning that the plant increases its number of internodes when grown in a light regimen of long days and short nights. Chiapas 234, an already-tall corn variety from southern Mexico, develops twice as many.

Karl carried on his corn-growing experiments at home while he was in college at Cornell University, a couple of hours’ drive to the east. And at school, he had access to the university’s library, which contained volumes upon volumes of scientific research on maize genetics. “Once I got into the literature, I could see there were mutations” that affected a corn plant’s height, recalls Karl.

Karl found plenty of information on mutations that increased internode number. In the 1970s, for example, researchers had discovered a naturally occurring dominant mutation known as Leafy that adds extra leaves (and thus extra internodes). He also learned of indeterminate and delayed flowering, both recessive mutations that affect the same flowering pathway in a way that boosts the number of internodes. Karl figured he could use traditional breeding techniques to integrate these mutations into Chiapas 234.

I’ve never seen anybody grow a 45-foot-tall corn plant; it’s impressive. And he put together a cool set of genes in order to pull it off.
—Edward Buckler,
Cor­nell University

“It’s never been done before,” he says. “No one would try it because it makes corn tall—too tall, people are not interested in super-tall corn. However, it’s interesting for basic research. The questions I always had”—such as how the short night–driven increases in internode number interact with the greenhouse-triggered increases in internode length, and how both of these interact with height-linked mutations—“the literature didn’t answer them.”

Over the years, Karl got his corn to grow taller and taller. At his family’s farm, he grew the Chiapas 234 variety up to 35 feet tall, and that was just by manipulating environmental variables such as night length. That plant earned him the world record for tallest corn plant in 2011. Then, to push the plant taller yet, he bred a Chiapas corn plant with a mutant plant carrying the Leafy mutation and then back-bred that hybrid to the Chiapas for six generations to essentially place the Leafy mutation in the Chiapas genetic background.

But before he grew his new corn variety, there was one last environmental variable to consider: the growing season. Karl could only grow for about seven months in New York before the costs of heating the greenhouse became prohibitive. So last year, on his own dime, Karl moved from Olean to the central valley of Costa Rica. “In New York, you have to keep corn from freezing, whereas down here you can focus on trying to grow it out to completion to see what’s happening,” he says. Late last year, his efforts paid off. In a makeshift greenhouse setup designed to both encourage the plant’s growth and support its stem as it climbed toward the sun, he grew a corn plant that measured 45 feet tall with more than 80 internodes—56 more internodes than unmodified Chiapas corn grown under normal conditions. (He regularly publishes his data in the Maize Newsletter.)

“What I think is so amazing about this tall plant is it really highlights how quickly a corn plant can turn the sun into carbon, into an incredibly tall plant,” says Edward Buckler, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) quantitative geneticist at Cornell University who in 2014 helped create a comprehensive map of maize height genetics (Genetics, doi:10.1534/genetics.113.159152). “I’ve never seen anybody grow a 45-foot-tall corn plant; it’s impressive. And he put together a cool set of genes in order to pull it off. My hat is off to him.”

Although farmers may not be interested in growing super-tall corn plants, which are unable to support themselves, Karl’s work could have implications for increasing the height of other crops, says Sarah Hake, a USDA researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “Most breeders would rather have their corn shorter so it doesn’t fall over. But if this could be sugar cane or Miscanthus for biofuel or feeding to animals as a wet grass . . . beyond the science of it, which is interesting, there .”

Karl, though, plans to stick with corn. In addition to refining the growing conditions, he hopes to add some of the other mutations he’s identified that might boost plant height. “Then having those stacked together, it should get up a bit higher,” says Karl, who already has a 55-foot-tall plastic greenhouse constructed for his next big plant.

Correction (April 6): This story has been updated from its original version to add that both Edward Buckler and Sarah Hake are researchers with the US Department of Agriculture. The Scientist regrets the oversight.

The Hassle to Detassel

Farmers everywhere can remember their first time detasseling corn. Walking through a field in 90 degree heat with 10 pounds of mud on their boots thinking there was no end in sight.

It’s tiring, back-breaking work, but somebody has to do it. This is why Bob Miller hires teenagers to help detassel corn fields every year in Forest City, IA, where detasseling is often their first job and considered a rite of passage in the industry.

Detasseling is necessary to produce high quality hybrids. Farmers don’t want inbred corn because hybrid corn produces a stronger crop with higher yields.

“It’s like you have a purebred puppy and you can’t let it breed with others or it would be ruined,” Miller says.

This can become quite the task when the farm has hundreds of acres of corn to be detasseled by hand, but this could all change soon. For the past few years Monsanto has been working on a new technology called the Roundup Hybridization System (RHS).

RHS is an efficient system with the ability to sterilize the male part of the plant, says Jeff Neu, Senior Corn Media Communications Adviser at Monsanto.

“The system is designed to allow hybrid seed producers to stop the production of viable pollen in specific, targeted plants through timed applications of glyphosate,” Neu says.

Through these timed applications, the tassel of the plant becomes decoration and reduces the need of manual and mechanical detasseling, Neu notes. This helps ensure the genetic purity of the hybrid corn seed.

However, male sterility isn’t a new idea, just a reinvented one. In 1952, J.S. Rogers and J.R. Edwardson discovered a Texas corn variety with a unique gene: cytoplasmic male sterility. This gene allowed for the production of a seed with a sterile tassel.

“The Texas, or T-cytoplasmic male sterility (cms-T) system, was used extensively in the 1960s to eliminate the need for hand detasseling in hybrid maize production,” says Roger Wise, an Iowa State University professor of plant pathology and microbiology.

This was a revelation to farmers everywhere. Without the need to detassel corn farmers were able to reduce their labor costs and focus on other tasks.

It was so successful 70-90% of U.S. hybrid corn carried cms-T in 1970, notes C. Wayne Smith in his book Corn: Origin, History, Technology, and Production. However, the same year also marked the spread of the southern corn leaf blight, a fungus which infected all corn with the cms-T gene.

“As a consequence of the 1970 epidemic of southern corn leaf blight, cms-T is no longer widely used commercially,” Wise notes.

The leaf blight would result in a 15% corn yield loss for the U.S. After the removal of cms-T, detasseling returned with a vengeance in the 70s, but machines were invented to help offset some of the labor.

Cytoplasm wouldn’t be used again until the 1980s, and never to the same extent. It also would never be as successful at maintaining infertility.

“They have been trying for years to get away from detassling and are just not too successful at getting rid of them,” Miller says.

The different cytoplasms used today are cms-C and cms-S but certain environmental conditions can spontaneously restore fertility.

RHS is currently in phase four of Monsanto’s pipeline and waiting further regulatory approval and could soon be available to reduce the hassle to detassel. It may remove the decades old deteassling rite of passage, but it will also help make production more efficient.

What are your memories of detasseling? What do you think about Monsanto’s Roundup Hybridization System? Let us know in the comments.

Odell’s World

Corn Growth Stages

Growth stages are bundled in two categories: Vegetative growth stages and Reproductive stages. As I describe each of these stages I will put them into perspective of how timing, watering and temperature can affect the final yield.

Vegetative Growth Stages

The Vegetative Growth Stages consist of the Emergence Stage, the Leaf Stages and the Tasseling Stage:

· Emergence Stage (VE)

· nth Leaf Stage (Vn)

· Tasseling Stage (VT)

Emergence Stage (VE)

During this stage most of the growth remains below the soil surface. This protects the seed from potential late frost. Soil moisture is important but more importantly is the timing of the planting, the later the planting the lower the yield potential. Below is a chart of general planting dates. These dates will vary as you move north and south of the Corn Belt.

Effect of Planting Dates on Corn Grain Yield

Planting

Yield (%)

Date

Potential

1-May

100

5-May

97

Good

10-May

94

Planting

15-May

91

Range

20-May

88

25-May

86

30-May

83

Leaf Stages (Vn)

The leaf stages are based on the number of leaves (n) on the corn plant. Each leafing stage carries its own significance, I have selected the leafing stages that represent tipping points in the plants potential yield.

V5 – Occurs 14 days after Emergence. Cooler soil temperatures will delay the plant from reaching this stage as well as delaying tassel formation. It will not affect yield, it could lead to a late harvest and a potential of frost damage before harvest.

V9 – Occurs 28 days after Emergence. Flooding at this or earlier stages is a concern as it can kill the plant within a few days. Flooding at later stages is less detrimental because most of the growing is above ground.

V15 – Occurs 56 days after Emergence. Moisture is critical from the V6 – V15 stage. Extended drought can reduce the yields by as much as 25%.

Tasseling Stage (VT)

The tassel is completely visible when the plant has reached its full height and will begin to shed its pollen. Hail damage is more serious at this time than any other growth period.

Reproductive Growth Stages

There are six stages to the Reproductive Growth Stages:

· Silking

· Blister

· Milk

· Dough

· Dent

· Maturity

Silking (R1)

Occurs about 3 days after the Tasseling Stage. Silk is visible outside the husk. Falling pollen grains are captured by the silk and grow down the silk.

Blister (R2)

Occurs 10 – 14 days after Silking. Between the final growth stage and Blistering moisture is critical. Drought conditions can reduce yield potential by as much as 50%, or 6% per day during a drought.

Milk (R3)

Occurs 20 days after Silking. Stress effect is less now. Kernels are beginning to yellow outside and contain a milky white inner fluid (80% moisture level).

Dough (R4)

Occurs 26 days after Silking. Kernels begin to gain in dry weight and size and have a ‘doughy’ consistency. An early frost at this stage can be detrimental to the crop with a potential loss of 50%.

Dent (R5)

Occurs 36 days after Silking and should finish about 48 days after Silking. The kernels begin to dry and have a dented appearance. Stress at this point will reduce kernel weight but not kernel number. Frost is the major concern because it can stop dry matter accumulation and cause premature black layer formation, reducing yield.

Maturity (R6)

Occurs 55 days after Silking. All kernels have attained maximum dry weight. Husks and many leaves are no longer green.

Corn Grain Frost Injury Yield Reduction

Kernel

Kernel

Days after

Days to

Yield

Development

Moisture

Silking

Maturity

Reduction

Dough

70%

26

31-37

35-50%

Dent

50%

36

20-23

10-20%

Mid-Dent

40%

48

10-12

4-5%

Maturity

30 – 35%

55

0

0%

Critical Points of Growth

Tipping

Time from

Points

Emergence

Concerns

V3

9 – 12

Late frost will not damage plant potential yield

V5

14 – 21

Cooler soil temperatures will slow growth, potential for late harvest

V9

28 – 35

Flooding up until this stage can kill a plant in a few days

V15

56 – 63

Drought conditions from V6 – V15 can reduce yields up to 25%

Tasseling (VT)

60 – 67

Water is still critical and hail can lead to pollen damage

Silking (R1)

63 – 68

Water is critical

Blister (R2)

73 – 78

Drought conditions from V15 – Blister can reduce yields up to 50%

Milk (R3)

83 – 88

Water is critical

Dough (R4)

89 – 94

Frost can reduce yields by 35 – 50%

Dent (R5)

99 – 104

Drought conditions from Blister – Dent can reduce yields up to 25% . Frost can reduce yields by 4 – 20% depending on level of dent

Maturity (R6)

118 – 123

Corn’s growth and development are complex processes and while one part of the corn’s plant is developing and growing, other part of the corn’s plant might be dying. There are nine stages of development of the plant, as noticeable in figure 1.

Figure 1, nine cycles of growth of corn, and water required in each of the stages to support the plant in its growth.

Growth of corn plant is usually divided into two stages: vegetative growth stage and reproductive development.

Vegetative growth stage is measured using the number of leaves method. The corn is put into a growth category by the number of leaves it currently has. Vegetative stages are labeled with the letter “V”, so if the corn plant is at the development, and it has seven leaves at a current stage of development, its current stage of development would be labeled as “V7”, look figure 1 above. Vegetative stages are labeled with letter “V” and the number represents the number of leaves the plant has at the current stage of development. When maize progresses until stage V4 or V5 some of the leaves might have fallen off because of the stem expansion and because the plant is aging. So, to determine the V stage, one should count the number of nodes from the bottom of the stem to the top, nodes being the places on the stem where there are currently leaves or where there was a leaf previously. When all the branches of the plant are fully emerged, corn reaches stage VT, or the final V-stage, as seen in figure 2.

Figure 2, VT stage; all branches are fully emerged on the corn.

Reproductive development stages are labeled with the letter “R” instead of “V”. As seen in figure 1, R1 stage of development is defined as the silk starts growing from the top of the corn plant. Rest of the R stages depend on the development of the kernels, or seeds in the ear of the corn. R stages begin when the tassel pollinates the ear. To be able to identify the next stages of corn development, husk should be removed. As soon as seeds are fertilized they begin developing. Seeds that are fertilized the first are on the base of the ear, and as seeds get fertilized, they fill the ear to its tip.

Seed of the Plant

Kernel or the seed of the corn plant consists of three main parts: the pericarp (also known as seed coat), the starchy endosperm, and the germ (embryo), look at figure 3. Pericarp part of the seed protects it before it is planted and after it has been planted against bacteria and fungi. Endosperm part of the seed provides enough energy for the plant to start growing and producing leaves. And lastly, the embryo part of the seed contains firstly developed parts in new seedling, consists of the point when the corn plant starts growing, which includes the first five to six leaves, and it also contains the initial root.

Figure 3, kernel of a corn labeled

The Corn Plant

Main parts of a corn plant are coleoptile, leaves, stalk, roots, ear and tassel. Other grain crops have two genders and are not separate, while corn plant has two separate genders, tassel and the ear. Corn is type of monoecious, and it is when both flowering structures are on the same plant.

Coleoptile is one of the main parts of the plant, as it protects four or five leaves rolled up inside each other, also called plumule. This occurs during germination. It is an important part of the plant as it pushes the plumule through the covering of the kernel and then through the surface. (figure 4)

Figure 4, coleoptile on the corn during germination.

Leaves on a corn plant consist of different parts, leaf blade, leaf midrib and leaf collar and sheath. They are produced on different sides of the corn and in a set order. Photosynthesis occurs on the leaf blade. Length of the leaf from the base to the tip is extended by leaf midrib. It provides the leaf with a structural support. Leaf blade and leaf sheath join on the inner surface of the leaf or collar. Sheath attaches the leaf to the stalk. (figure 5)

Figure 5, leaves of the corn

The main purpose of the stalk is to give structural support to the leaves for them to be able to attract sunlight. (figure 6)

Figure 6, corn stalk

The ear of the corn has cylindrically arranged group of flowers, each flower has an ovary that contains a silk. If the flower is fertilized successfully than it is able to produce a kernel. Usually there are around 700-1000 kernels arranged on the cob. (figure 7)

Figure 7, corn ears.

The male part of the corn plant is called the tassel. Corn plant has separate male and female flowers. The main purpose of the tassel is to produce pollen so it can fertilize the flower, or the female part of the corn plant (ear). Tassel usually produces 2 million to 5 million pollen grains. Also, corn is wind pollinated where wind carries pollen to the ear. (figure 8)

Figure 8, tassel of the corn.

In Serbia, corn is planted in around March or April, while it is harvested in around October or November. However for the rest of the world, it can be seen in the table below.

Table 1, planting, developing and harvesting seasons in the world regarding corn.

As noticed in the table, depending on the southern and northern hemisphere, corn has different seasons of planting. In northern hemisphere, Europe plants their seeds the soonest due to its warmer climate while Canada plants their seeds the latest, in May/June due to its colder climate. Regarding the southern hemisphere, corn is planted in the opposite seasons from northern hemisphere. While in south, they are planting their seeds, in north they are harvesting the corn seeds.

Work Cited:

Source 1: Book, O’Keeffe, Kieran. Maize Growth & Development. Orange, N.S.W.: NSW Dept. of Primary Industries, 2009. Web.

Source 2:”How a Corn Plant Develops.” How a Corn Plant Grows. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

Source 3: “Life Cycle of a Corn Plant.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

Figure 1: Colless, J. M. Maize Growing. Orange: NSW Agriculture, 1992. Print

Figure 2: “Kieran O’Keeffe.”Kieran O’Keeffe. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2016.

Figure 3: “Heat Stress On Late Grain-Filling In Corn.” IGrow. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.

Figure 4:”Coleoptile.” Coleoptile. N.P., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

Figure 5: “Determining Corn Leaf Stages.” – Corny News Network (Purdue University). N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

Figure 6:”Corn Stalk.” Autodesk 123D. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

Figure 7:”Corn – Ears.” N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

Figure 8: “Growing Sweet Corn – Alarm Clock Wars.” Alarm Clock Wars. N.p., 30 June 2015. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

Table 1: “We Are the Answer Company.” Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

Here’s What Fruits And Vegetables Looked Like Before We Domesticated Them

Next time you bite into a slice of watermelon or a cob of corn, consider this: these familiar fruits and veggies didn’t always look and taste this way.

Genetically modified foods, or GMOs, inspire strong reactions nowadays, but humans have been tweaking the genetics of our favourite produce for millennia.

While GMOs may involve splicing genes from other organisms (such as bacteria) to give plants desired traits – like resistance to pests, selective breeding is a slower process whereby farmers select and grow crops with those traits over time.

From bananas to eggplant, here are some of the foods that looked totally different before humans first started growing them for food.

Wild watermelon

(Christie’s)

This detail from a 17th-century painting by Giovanni Stanchi depicts a watermelon that looks strikingly different from modern melons, as Vox points out. A cross-section of the one in the painting, which was made between 1645 and 1672, appears to have swirly shapes embedded in six triangular pie-shaped pieces.

Modern watermelon

(Scott Ehardt/Wikimedia)

Over time, humans have bred watermelons to have a red, fleshy interior – which is actually the placenta – like the ones seen here. Some people think the watermelon in Stanchi’s painting may just be unripe or unwatered, but the black seeds in the painting suggest that it was, in fact, ripe.

Wild banana

(Genetic Literacy Project)

The first bananas may have been cultivated at least 7,000 years ago – and possibly as early as 10,000 years ago – in what is now Papua New Guinea. They were also grown in Southeast Asia. Modern bananas came from two wild varieties, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, which had large, hard seeds, like the ones in this photo.

Modern banana

(Domiriel/Flickr Creative Commons)

The hybrid produced the delicious modern banana, with its handy, graspable shape and peelable covering. Compared to its ancestor, the fruit has much smaller seeds, tastes better, and is packed with nutrients.

Wild eggplant

Solanum incanum (Nepenthes/Wikimedia)

Throughout their history, eggplants have come in a wide array of shapes and colours, such as white, azure, purple, and yellow – like those shown here. Some of the earliest eggplants were cultivated in China. Primitive versions used to have spines on the place where the plant’s stem connects to the flowers.

Modern eggplant

(YoAmes/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

But selective breeding has gotten rid of the spines and given us the larger, familiar, oblong purple vegetable you find in most grocery stores.

Wild carrot

(Genetic Literacy Program)

The earliest known carrots were grown in the 10th century in Persia and Asia Minor. These were thought to originally be purple or white with a thin, forked root – like those shown here – but they lost their purple pigment and became a yellow colour.

Modern carrot

(TTL media/.com)

Farmers domesticated these thin, white roots, which had a strong flavor and biennial flower, into these large, tasty orange roots that are an annual winter crop.

Wild corn

(livingcropmuseum.info)

Perhaps the most iconic example of selective breeding is North American sweetcorn, which was bred from the barely edible teosinte plant. Natural corn, shown here, was first domesticated in 7,000 BC and was dry like a raw potato, according to this infographic by chemistry teacher James Kennedy.

Modern corn

(Rosana Prada/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Today, corn is 1,000 times larger than it was 9,000 years ago and much easier to peel and grow. Also, 6.6 percent of it is made up of sugar, compared with just 1.9 percent in natural corn, according to Kennedy. About half of these changes occurred since the 15th century, when European settlers started cultivating the crop.

Wild peach

(James Kennedy)

Peaches used to be small, cherry-like fruits with little flesh. They were first domesticated around 4,000 BCE by the ancient Chinese and tasted earthy and slightly salty, “like a lentil”, according to Kennedy.

Modern peach

(James Kennedy)

But after thousands of years of farmers selectively breeding them, peaches are now 64 times larger, 27 percent juicier, and 4 percent sweeter.

So next time someone tells you we shouldn’t be eating food that’s been genetically modified, you can tell them we already are.

A version of this article was first published in February 2016.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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Heat, Drought Draw Farmers Back To Sorghum, The ‘Camel Of Crops’

A test field of sorghum outside Manhattan, Kan., planted by Kansas State University. Dan Charles/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Dan Charles/NPR

Much of the world is turning hotter and dryer these days, and it’s opening new doors for a water-saving cereal that’s been called “the camel of crops”: sorghum. In an odd twist, this old-fashioned crop even seems to be catching on among consumers who are looking for “ancient grains” that have been relatively untouched by modern agriculture.

Sorghum isn’t nearly as famous as the big three of global agriculture: corn, rice and wheat. But maybe it should be. It’s a plant for tough times, and tough places.

Sorghum “originated in the northeastern quadrant of Africa,” explains Gebisa Ejeta, a plant scientist from Ethiopia and professor at Purdue University. From there, it spread across Africa, India and even into China. “It’s got a lot of characteristics that make it a favorite crop for the drylands of Africa and the semi-arid tropics.”

It’s an essential source of food in those regions, but it’s not typically a big money crop. In Africa, it’s grown by subsistence farmers. It’s never gotten much attention from seed companies or investors.

But it is nutritious. It can grow in soils that other plants won’t tolerate. Above all, it doesn’t need much water. Compared with corn, for instance, it needs one-third less water, and it doesn’t give up and wilt when rains don’t come on time. It waits for moisture to arrive.

It probably arrived in North America aboard slave ships. That traditional sorghum looks like an overgrown corn plant, up to 10 feet tall, with a head of seeds on top.

Today, American farmers grow two kinds of sorghum. Sweet sorghum is tall; you can use it to make a sweet syrup or just feed the whole plant to animals.

But most sorghum in the U.S. is grown for feed grain. That version of the plant is short, with seeds that come in several different colors.

Steve Henry showed me some near Abilene, Kan., on our way to the farm where he grew up. Kansas is the biggest sorghum-growing state. Out here, they call milo.

“You’ve got white milo, red milo, yellow milo,” says Henry, scanning the field. “Basically, you have the little berries, and they’re filled with starch, like like corn is filled with starch, and the starch is what we’re after.”

Sorghum is used for the same things as corn: high-energy feed for pigs and chickens. It also gets turned into ethanol.

But corn is far more popular. Corn produces a bigger harvest, and farmers earn bigger profits with it — at least when there’s plenty of water. In the U.S., the amount of land in sorghum has been steadily shrinking.

There are signs, though, of a sorghum revival on the high plains. The reason is water, or the lack of it. From Nebraska to western Texas, cornfields have been fed with rivers of water pumped from underground aquifers, and that water is starting to run low.

Some farmers, such as Mitchell Baalman of Hoxie, Kan., are looking for crops that aren’t quite so thirsty. “We’re learning a lot about milo,” says Baalman. “You know, nobody wants to grow milo out here; it’s kind of a forgotten crop. But I tell you what, there’s where our money’s going to be made this year. It’ll be on grain sorghum.”

Ejeta, who won the World Food Prize in 2009 for his work on sorghum, says that sorghum’s renaissance may depend on the price that farmers pay for water. “If water is given its real value, and you limit irrigation, or people begin to pay for water, it would be economically smarter to grow sorghum in several areas of the United States,” he says.

In the latest twist to the sorghum saga, it’s actually becoming somewhat trendy among consumers who are looking for something a little different, and maybe a little more healthful.

“Sorghum is naturally gluten-free; it’s an ancient grain,” says Earl Roemer, who set up a company called Nu Life Market to sell sorghum flour to big food companies. Roemer’s sorghum mill in Scott City, Kan., is busy. “Demand is exploding!” he says. “We’re seeing 25 to 30 percent increase in demand, annually. We’re doing all we can to increase production.” His flour goes into gluten-free baked goods and is also used in breakfast cereals containing so-called ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth and spelt.

Every week, he says, visitors from food companies large and small make the trek to western Kansas to talk about new opportunities. Next week, he says, he’s traveling to Taiwan to explore international markets.

In addition to my obsession with food, I have something of an infatuation with tiny things. So you can probably imagine how I feel about baby produce. I’ll coo and ahh over my budding tomatoes and goochie goo my wee little string beans. But no vegetable floods me with as much maternal delight as mild, crunchy baby corn. I’m the weirdo gazing lovingly at her stir-fry like it’s just clapped its pudgy little hands and giggled. There’s just something about those tiny rows of kernels, that diminutive center cob that makes me want to pick up an absurdly small set of corn holders and nibble away at it like Tom Hanks in Big.

But have you ever thought about baby corn? I mean really sat and pondered the stuff—not just where it comes from but why you pretty much never, ever see it fresh? Chances are that unless you grow crops of your own, the only baby corn you’ve ever even seen, let alone tasted, came straight out of a jar or a can.

This fact on its own wouldn’t be quite so strange if baby corn were not literally baby corn. After all, there’s a fair share of supermarket products that the vast majority of Americans only meet in cans—take hearts of palm or Vienna sausages, for instance. But the United States is the world’s top producer of corn, which makes the elusive nature of those adorable little cornlettes (yes, you can call them cornlettes) all the more rankling.

So what’s the deal?

To unpack the mystery that is baby corn, we have to talk birds and bees. See, as corn stalks grow, they produce both male and female flowers. The female flowers are ears; the male flowers emerge as a tassel at the top of the plant. For corn to properly mature, the pollen from male flowers must be blown onto the silks protruding from each female ear—each pollinated silk will eventually yield a single kernel of corn.

But baby corn is harvested almost immediately after silks emerge, before pollination occurs. The trademark flavor of sweet corn, let alone anything resembling a mature kernel, has yet to develop at this early stage, since “sugars do not start accumulating until well after pollination,” explains Jim Myers, professor of horticulture at Oregon State University. That means that pretty much any breed of corn can yield tender, succulent baby corn, from flint corn (your popcorn and grits), dent corn (corn chips and tortillas), and sweet corn (corn on the cob), to field corn—corn destined for industrial uses like oils and sweeteners, livestock feed, and bio-fuel. And flavor-wise? “A field corn ear won’t be much different from a sweet corn ear,” Myers emphasizes.

So if there are so many potential sources of baby corn, why is it so hard to find it fresh?

It turns out that most baby corn is grown in Thailand, where it’s also known as candle corn. According to Mark Lambert, a representative of the National Corn Grower’s Association, “We grow very little if any baby corn in the US, in fact none that I know of personally. It is a very specialized, labor intensive process and a niche market.” In other words, it’s costly: the mechanical corn harvesters used to strip ears of corn from their stalks aren’t designed to work on baby corn. The vegetables need to be harvested by hand, and that means lots and lots of hands and, ultimately, lower profit margins.

“Some people think that baby corn is rather wasteful,” says Myers. “You grow this huge grass plant but only take a tiny part to eat.” That’s why commercial producers have developed seeds that yield more ears than a typical stalk, allowing for more bountiful crops. But the delicate vegetable doesn’t travel well and has to be stored in a refrigerated environment, which is why it’s virtually always imported in cans or jars, preserved in water with citric or lactic acids, as well as salt and sometimes sugar.

In other words, it tastes canned. “It’s a different and, in my opinion, much nicer vegetable when harvested and used fresh,” continues Myers. For those enamored by the appearance of the corn and curious about its fresh-picked texture and flavor, it’s been likened to hearts of palm: mild, faintly sweet and vegetal, snappy and crunchy. Jealous yet? Heart-wrenchingly disappointed?

Good thing you can totally order it online, request a special batch from a local purveyor, or best of all, grow it in your own garden.

If you are lucky enough to have a patch of land in which to do a little gardening, baby corn is a relatively easy crop to handle—you don’t even have to worry about pollination if they’re all you’re after. That said, Myers suggests growing a sweet corn variety (or whatever corn type you prefer) “and harvesting second ears for baby corn while you allow first ears to mature for the main crop.” He elaborates, explaining that “there are prolific varieties that have been developed for baby corn harvest but these are not the best use of one’s limited garden resources. You can increase the number of ears per plant by spacing the plants in the row—a foot or 18 inches will suffice.” For optimal flavor and texture, the baby corn should be harvested no more than a few days after the silks have emerged from the husk.

Once you’ve got yourself some cornlettes, whether fresh or jarred, the options are vast. Raw or deep-fried, they make great finger food. Cook them into soups, chowders, and stews or add them to stir-fries. They do well in curries, chili, and even over noodles. Or treat them like their adult brethren and throw them on the grill for mini elotes (or any of these other dressed-up grilled corn variations).

So there you have it, mystery solved. Just be sure to give some mothering encouragement before eating your young.

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Problems With Corn: Information On Early Corn Tasseling

You’ve planted your corn and to the best of your ability have provided adequate corn plant care,but why are your corn plant tassels coming out so soon? This is one of the most common problems with corn and one that leaves many gardeners wanting answers. Let’s learn more about what may be causing early corn tasseling and what, if anything, can be done about it.

What are Corn Plant Tassels?

The male flower of the corn plant is known as a corn tassel. After the bulk of the plant growth is complete, tassels will appear on top of the plant. Corn plant tassels can be green, purple or yellow.

The tassel’s job is to produce pollen that encourages the growth and ripening of the corn ear. Wind carries the pollen to the female flower, or the silk, on the corn

plant.

Corn is not overly difficult to grow; however, some gardeners have concerns when their corn tassels too soon.

Growing Corn and Corn Plant Care

Corn is most productive when the daytime temperatures are between 77 and 91 F. (12-33 C.) and the temperatures at night are between 52 and 74 F. (11-23 C.).

Corn needs lots of moisture, especially on hot and sunny days when the humidity is low. Corn needs at least 1 inch of water every seven days until it is about 15 inches tall and at least an inch of water every five days until tassels form. After tassels form, corn needs to be watered 1 inch every three days until the corn matures.

Problems with Corn Tassels Too Soon

In order for sweet corn to grow to its full maturity, proper tasseling, silking and pollination are necessary. However, early corn tasseling usually results when plants are stressed.

Corn that is exposed to cold temperatures early in the growing season may develop tassels too early. On the flip side, corn tassels too soon can occur if it is stressed by drought, nutrient deficiencies or hot and dry conditions.

One of the best ways to deal with early corn tasseling is by planting corn during the most desired times and providing adequate moisture and nutrients helps corn set tassels at the right time and resist stressful conditions.

If your corn tassels too soon, however, do not worry. Most of the time the plant will continue to grow and produce tasty corn for you.

Corn Tasseling Early?

Every once in a while, instead of instilling calm and comfort, the garden promotes panic. Such is the case when I discovered that my heirloom Black Aztec sweet corn was starting to send out tassels.

The problem is not that it is tasseling, but rather that it is tasseling now – while the stalks are only 2 feet tall. What’s going on here?

Black Aztec sweet corn gets a jump on the season

I did a quick search online to see if I could find an answer. On several forums (should be fora, if we’re using proper Latin) I found many gardeners with similar concerns. The answers posted seemed to indicate that it was normal, or at least common. But why did this happen?

Weather – it appears that corn tends to tassel early if the plants are hit with a cold snap early on in development. As it so happens, we had a freak hail storm about a week after I planted out the corn. The plants were damaged – leaves shredded – but the invisible damage apparently came from temperature.

Tassels rising out of short corn stalks

The good news is that most of the answers on the forums indicated that the plants catch up and the results are relatively the same.

Opening tassels on an even shorter corn stalk

Let’s hope that’s true. We’ll report back our findings as the season progresses. If this is happening to you (or ever has) post your concerns, research here.

What is a Corn Tassel?

What IS That Thing Growing on the Top of My Corn?

At approximately 50 days after planting corn, depending on the variety, you will notice a tall, thin growth coming out of the top of your corn stalk. It starts as one shoot, then rapidly grows additional shoots which have a feathered appearance. The entire part is called the tassel and indeed looks like a tassel you might find at the end of a pull cord.

What is The Purpose of a Corn Tassel?

Although the tassels on your corn have their beauty, their purpose is far more than ornamental. The corn tassel is the male reproductive organ of a corn plant, so without it, your corn will not pollinate.

If you look closely at the tassel, you will notice that each frond is covered with a powdery yellow substance. This is the pollen, without which your corn will not produce ears. The pollen from the tassel is blown onto the silk, and the ear is fertilized.

Do I Need to Do Anything With the Tassel?

The practice of detasseling corn involves pulling the tassel off of select corn plants to prevent pollination. Unless you are growing seed corn to plant the following year, there is no reason at all to detassel your corn. In fact, you might lose out on a good crop of sweet corn if you do, since pollination will not occur.

Instead, just let the wind pollinate your rows of corn and do not worry about the tassel. People have been growing corn for centuries without doing anything more than planting the seeds and taking care of them correctly.

Problems with Corn Tasseling

Occasionally, corn can tassel too early, before the silk begins to form. This can result in lower pollination rates, which will decrease your overall yield. The most common reasons corn tassels too soon are:

  • Planting too early, so the corn is exposed to cold temperatures.
  • Lack of nutrients, which means you have not adequately fertilized the corn
  • Prolonged periods of hot, dry weather with not enough water.

To prevent early tasseling, be sure to plant your corn when the temperatures are warm enough to allow the corn to germinate within 7-10 days. Additionally, be sure you are applying fertilizer frequently and providing ample water when the days are hot and dry. By taking proper care of your corn plants, you can almost guarantee that they will thrive.

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