Sweet Corn: Hybrid and Heritage

Sweet CornYour friendly Planet Natural Blogger was standing in line yesterday at the grocery store — one with a focus on healthy eating and a claim that it never uses GMO products in its store-label items — when an equally friendly checker commented on the fact that we were buying ears of sweet corn. “I have relatives in the Midwest,” she said, “and they say that they put the water on to boil before they go out and pick sweet corn for dinner.”

Well, your talkative PN Blogger, raised in the Midwest, had heard this before and, indeed, had told the story himself a number of times. And having just read up on the history of corn, we felt we had to put our two cents in (though what we said was probably worth half that).

“That’s good, old fashioned, home-grown corn,” I explained. “This commercial stuff has been bred to keep it sugars longer, so it can be shipped and held before sale. But it’s not as good, it’s not as sweet as good, home-grown sweet corn. The sugars in homegrown sweet corn aren’t as stable. But the corn is tastier.”

“The sugars turn to starch,” said the person in line behind me. “They’re better, but they have to be eaten right away.”

Everybody wants to get into the act.

But it’s actually true that modern hybrid sweet corn has been bred so that its natural sugars stabilize and don’t convert to starch as quickly. And, as every gardener knows, they’re not as tasty, either in sweetness or good, corny flavor. We had just read the first chapter of our current favorite gardening book, Plant Breeding for the Home Gardner: How To Create Unique Vegetables & Flowers, and its author, Joseph Tychonievich, opens with a discussion of corn. Needless to say, it’s fascinating.

He talks about a Mexican grass he grows, one that’s short, slender, has tiny flowers, and yields a few equally tiny, extremely hard gray-and-brown seeds. Its common name is teosinte but its scientific name is Zea Mays. Next to it, Tychonievich grows another member of the Z. Mays family. This one has a fist-thick stalk, grows very tall, and produces hundreds of seeds that dwarf those on teosinte. It’s called sweet corn.

Heirloom Corn SeedsThe transformation from skinny grass to productive food crop was brought about by hundreds of years of selective gardening. Small-scale, pre-Columbian, subsistence farmers saved seeds from plants that had desirable qualities; namely more, less-hard seeds. These plants were the result of natural cross-breeding, a kind of ongoing hybridization. The actions of these farmers, over generations, came to yield something that resembles the sweet corn we know today. In the last hundred years or so, corn has been rapidly changed so that we have breeds that are sweeter, grow in less favorable climates, or have desirable commercial traits like the ability to stay “fresh” — maintain their sugar content — for days rather than hours. And, too, corn has been bred for commercial purposes other than human consumption.

But its important to remember that something’s lost in the process. Usually this doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t you rather be eating plump, juicy sweet corn than those hard little grass seeds? But when the desirable traits have commercial application, like those commercial sweet corns or those hard, never-to-be-ripe tomatoes that don’t bruise during shipping, then the loss is truly tragic. The solution here is simple: grow your own corn. Find the best tasting, most adapted sweet corn for your growing conditions and grow it. Sure it’s only available for a few short weeks each year. Then, if like your PN Blogger you must, buy commercial sweet corn from Florida or some place. But those days you’re picking corn that you’ve grown yourself are among the most rewarding a gardener has.

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