By PAUL HETZLER
As winter draws nearer, sweet corn is but a distant memory and field corn is fast disappearing into the insatiable headers of roaring combines. But here and there a few market growers and gardeners are bringing in some less common types of corn. While not very significant to the regional economy, locally raised popcorn and decorative “Indian” corn have emotional and cultural value that goes beyond their monetary worth.
In recent years, U.S. farmers in the Midwest have been producing around 200 million pounds of popcorn annually, which translates to something like $70 million. (It also equals roughly a billion kernels, in case that fact comes in handy for you some day.) I've seen local popcorn for sale on occasion at farmers' markets, but in our neck of the woods it's mostly raised and consumed by home gardeners. Typically popcorn has either white or yellow kernels, but you can find other types like the miniature red “strawberry” variety that's easier on sensitive teeth.
Regardless of color, what defines popcorn is that its kernels have extra-hard seed coats. Other corn will just burn if you try to pop it. The tough seed coat of popcorn, however, allows steam pressure to build inside the kernel. (Kernel moisture must be 13-14 percent for this to work well.) When the coat finally ruptures, the sudden and violent release of pressure is what makes the starchy insides puff up. The act of popping corn has a natural appeal for children (and some of us adults who are easily amused), and has probably always been as much a family activity as a gastric treat.
Both red and white popcorn are among the dozen Iroquois corn varieties identified by Dr. Arthur C. Parker, anthropologist and early-1900s NYS Museum curator. As with other Native American crops, European settlers took to popcorn with gusto. And bowls and spoons. They adopted it as the original puffed cereal, and enjoyed a bowl of it in milk (or water; true story), lightly drizzled with maple syrup.
Since the days when it was braided and hung up to dry for later use, Indian corn has been an icon of Thanksgiving, and of autumn in general. As it happens, the decorative bundles we buy today are perfectly edible unless they've been coated with a sealant. Though Indian corn varieties abound, there are two basic types: flint, which is used for hominy grits or made into corn meal, and soft corn, which is always ground into meal. At this time of year, locally grown decorative corn is usually available at farmers' markets and roadside stands.
If you want to try growing decorative corn next year—or even if you don't—do your eyes a favor and take a look at the offerings in seed catalogs. You can find types with both solid and mixed-color ears ranging in size from two inches to over a foot long. Growing popcorn requires the usual inputs, but psychic ability is a plus. To facilitate drying it's best to leave popcorn in the field as long as possible, keeping an eye on the forecast so you can bring it in before that prolonged autumn wet spell—yes, that one. Reaching 14% kernel moisture may require some indoor drying, and if you don't have a moisture meter, test-pop a few kernels each week until you find the Goldilocks zone.
I wonder if some of the appeal of popcorn and Indian corn is that they are two durable, aesthetically pleasing products of a summer's worth of sunshine that we can take with us into the darker months for nourishment. Of several kinds, potentially.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.