I get butterflies in my stomach at the first sign of Indian corn. It shows up in the produce section of the supermarket every fall like clockwork. To my eyes the bright kernels glinting under the artificial lights are an affordable treasure of tiny rubies and obsidian, pearls and sapphires.
Unlike the sweet corns of summer barbecue, these ears are hard as rock and seemingly indestructible. But leave an ear out in the warm rain and the kernels sprout almost overnight. The seedlings suffer the collective fate of brutal sibling rivalry because corn is no longer able to reproduce on its own. This oddity isn't the result of modern genetic modification, but has been handed down to us because of the way Native Americans shaped the plant over the centuries.
If you garden, consider ornamental corn as a decoration and as seed corn for next year's planting. Native Americans saved their largest ears of a crop for seed; after you enjoy your holiday corn, do as they did and put your biggest ears away for the garden.
Indian corn also is known as calico corn because it has the speckled colors of a calico cat. Calico corn is the result of cross-pollination among a wide range of Native American strains. You'll find the pure strains sold by heirloom seed companies such as Seeds of Change and Native Seed/SEARCH. Native Americans traditionally separated their strains in the field to keep them pure.
Exciting new ornamental corns have entered supermarket. Many of them are smaller brightly colored popcorn, or parch corn, which produces little pointy-ended kernels. Unlike larger flour corn kernels, these hard flinty coats protect popcorn for super long-term storage as food crops. Popcorn is great for your garden because small ears take up less space. These miniature popcorns sell out quickly because they are so cute ... so shop early.
You'd miss another favorite, strawberry popcorn, if it were mixed in with the big calicos. This is a tiny corn with solid blood red kernel. Ears are short, too, and fat, making it appear to be a huge double strawberry. When first shucked they are so shiny they resemble Victorian garnet basket rings. The strawberry popcorn plant is smaller than standard corn so you get more plants in less space with it, too.
True miniature popcorn is shaped like a standard corn ear two to four inches in length and about as big around as your thumb. These are usually solid, but sometimes they are calico-colored. The greatest finds are two strains, a blue and a lovely lavender pink, both really beautiful. Unfortunately they disappear quickly. The only way to assure good quantities is to grow your own.
At the end of the holidays, remove the kernels from your biggest, best looking cobs. Store them in zipper-type bags to plant in spring. They are a favorite of hungry winter rodents, so keep the bags in a tin or indoors away from foraging wildlife. Be sure to plant your corn in blocks to aid in the necessary crosspollination and to ensure the newborn ears are fleshed out fully without gaps. If you want calico corn, mix them up. If you'd prefer a single color, space blocks as far apart as you can. Even then, expect an occasional off colored kernel. Don't harvest your corn in the fall until the husks have lost all their green, then air dry for a week or so after shucking.
If you can't find miniature pop or strawberry corn in the supermarket, you can buy seed online at New England Seed Co.'s Web site, www.neseed.com. Other good sources for unique corn strains include Southwestern Native Seed/SEARCH, (www.nativeseeds.org) and, from the Midwest, Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com.)
It's sad to buy beautiful corn only to throw it away at season's end. As a gardener you can enjoy your decorations and grow them, too. Buy now or prepare to order seed grow your own for really unique holiday corn next year.
(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)