Beautiful Corn

In "Beautiful Corn," market farmer and naturalist Anthony Boutard weaves together this unique plant's contribution to our culture, its distinctive biology and the practical information needed to grow and enjoy it at home.

| May 2013

  • Beautiful Corn
    America's Original Grain from Seed to Plant
    Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

  • Beautiful Corn

Beautiful Corn (New Society Publishers, 2012) advocates a return to the nourishing whole grain that built America, in place of today's genetically modified crops processed by industrial agriculture into synthetic sweeteners and cheap meat. Come along on this lyrical and inspiring journey through the seasons, learning about growing and using corn in the traditional way. 

With the approach of the harvest moon, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, we watch the rows of corn as the leaves start to yellow and die back and the husks covering the ears of grain begin to dry. The field develops a distinct rustle in the breeze. The swallows that spent the summer swooping and jostling above the tassels are long gone. A covey of young quail fatten up on the seeds and insects in the field, startling us with whirring wings. Gardeners and farmers, even insects and animals, betray an anxious energy as the season changes. All of us are preoccupied by the need to store food for the months when Ceres pines for her absent daughter. For the gardener, the time is a frenzy of pickling, canning, freezing, and drying.

We exorcize our anxiousness by visiting the field regularly, and bring in early maturing ears to add to the seed stock. The husks are pulled back without removing them so the kernels can dry. Leaving the husk on is our notation that it is an early ear good for seed. A marker is used to jot the collection date on the husks, and to remind us that they are more than decoration.

As corn matures, the high sugar level in the plant supports pastures of suckling aphids, turgid with honeydew, and their attending ants. Packs of predaceous ladybugs and their larvae hunt down the aphids. The yellow jackets are also feverishly hunting for food to nourish the new crop of queens deep in their underground nests. At this stage, the aphids exact an insignificant toll on the plant. It has plenty of sugars to spare, and the aphids are merely part of a miniature drama worth observing for a few moments.

The drying husks turn a sandy brown, telling us the kernels are ripe. Sometimes the ears of corn will droop after ripening, especially the heavy dent types. In a wet season, this droop is advantageous, because it allows the husk to shed the rain and keep the grain dry. If the weather cooperates, the field is the best place for the ears to dry. Having observed grains during this period, I suspect the plant aids in the drying process, either passively or actively removing water from the ear. Off the plant, the ear takes longer to dry. However, conditions do not always favor field drying. In the wet maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest, for example, the mature corn generally has to be gathered and husked in the field before it fully dries.

Keep an eye on the weather forecast. A warm, rainy spell can causethe kernels to split and sometimes even germinate on the cob, a strange and disturbingly Oedipal scene. Popcorn kernels are particularly susceptible to splitting, rendering the corn worthless. If the forecast anticipates a wet streak, you can carry out the final stage of drying the ears under cover. The most reliable way to dry corn is to husk it and let the cobs dry in a barn, garage, or some other well-ventilated, covered area. It’s better to err on the safe side.

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