Corn from Outer Space

We saw this corn on the trip to the Fair last weekend, corn like I've never seen before. Sure, like you probably have, I've grown sweet corn that has an occasional wimpy ear of corn, not well filled out, that appears with the corn tassel. But I've never encountered an entire field of corn with the ears where the tassels should be. Nor with suckers (they're called, "tillers") which have what appear to be normal ears of corn. I contacted my friend, Chuck Voigt, the State Extension Specialist in Vegetables and Herbs at the Univ. of Illinois, who sent the photos on to other folks at the University.

From the information they sent me, what I understand this to be is the following: an uncommon but not that rare of an occurrence. It requires the following: (1) a hybrid corn variety that contains long dormant corn genes (remember, corn is an ancient crop, selected from wild grasses in the much distant past, in Central and South America);
(2) an event that damages the corn tops, such as hail;
(3) weather conditions, such as this year's, with excess rain and cool weather.

This phenomenon is called, "tassel ears" but by the descriptions I read, this happens on the tillers (aka suckers). The suckers in this field appear normal, while the strange ears of corn are on the top of the corn plant, not on the sucker. And they're pretty well filled out, too.

Generally when this does show up, from what I read, it is only seen in a small percentage of the field, usually along the edges. The field I photographed appeared to be a hundred acres or more, with "normal" looking corn fields joining it on both sides. And the entire field, for as far as I could see (and you can see more in the field photo if you click to enlarge it) is the same. Even driving along at the speed limit on the highway it was easy to spot this corn with the ears at the top of the plants. All the corn plants have filled out ears on top of the corn, with the tassel sticking out the top. And all have clumps (tillers) at the bottom of the corn stalk, with multiple ears that all appear to be normal and with husks.

We saw the corn between Lincoln and Sedalia, MO, on the trip to the Fair. I didn't see a sign anywhere designating what hybrid corn variety it might be and I would have liked to talk to the farmer whose corn it was to get an opinion from him. Of course the seed corn company may have removed their company name to avoid publicity for providing seed for outer space corn.

Years ago, many of them, when I was just a kid, riding along in my father's truck, we visited a farm in that area of the country. My Dad was hauling corn or livestock, I don't remember which, but the owner of the farm where he was hauling, gave him an ear of corn that had no outside husk, but every kernel of corn had it's own, tiny husk. I kept that for many years because it was such an oddity and I wanted to grow some. I learned that aberration of corn was a throwback to the old corn gene pool, as is this strange field of corn with the ears on top. So maybe it's something in the water of northern Missouri. Of course it is a substantial corn growing area, so some occasional corn from outer space just makes it more interesting!

For plants I know somewhat more about, I just harvested a guinea bean for supper tonight. Sometimes you'll see these sold as "decorative snake gourds," sometimes guinea beans, sometimes, "New Guinea beans." In the community where I grew up, we grew and ate these every summer. In fact, they were much more common where I lived than eggplant.

I slice the tender guinea bean into quarter inch thick slices and dip each in buttermilk then flour and fry them until golden brown. This vegetable can be fixed many other ways, but this one is my favorite ways. It's soft and mild flavored inside with a crispy outside.

Guinea bean is from Papua, New Guinea (thus the name, "guinea bean"). It's a gourd, and the traditional covering for men on that island. While some of the villages I visited while in New Guinea a few years ago have been pushed by outsiders to give up their cultural traditions, most of the men still wear the penis gourd, called a "koteka," thid same "guinea bean" vegetable. What surprised me when I was there and collected seed in 1999, was I didn't find people in any of the villages eating the vegetable. It probably has more to do with the more than 200 varieties of sweet potatoes grown on the island, and the abundance of taro, but according to The Gourd Book, by Charles Heiser, there are 5 varieties of gourds in New Guinea (including West Papua, New Guinea, where I visited) and 3 of those are used for food. I was also there at a time of year the gourds were already nearing maturity. And I certainly explored only a small area. Different tribes use different gourd varieties and you can identify the members of those tribes by the kind of gourd worn.

In doing Google searches for New Guinea bean I found a lot of wrong and misleading information. Some websites labeled this gourd as "cucuzzi or Italian edible gourd" which it is not. That's a completely different plant, which I have also grown. And you'll find some seed companies labeling it, "snake gourd," which it's also not. Snake gourds are not actually gourds and don't have hard shells. I grow these as well as guinea beans and they are a very different plant. Snake gourd, shown here is Trichosanthes cucmerina, and is not the same plant as the guinea bean.

And to confuse you even more (if you're still with me here and I'm not getting too botanical for you), "snake gourd" is listed on one website I found as Curcurbita pepo, which I'm pretty certain is wrong, but it IS the new guinea bean I am growing and they have seed for sale. Most places it's listed as Lagenaria siceraria or just "Lagenaria species."

If you don't know, or ever wondered, gourds have white blossoms while loofahs (which are also edible when young, like guinea beans), pumpkins and squash, have yellow blossoms.

So there you have it, dinner tonight at Long Creek Herbs: heirloom tomatoes with lemon basil, grilled chicken with quick fried guinea bean and a few ginger carrots. There are so many good things to eat in the garden this time of year.


Tina Sams said...

We grew the snake gourds a couple of years ago and made rain sticks from them. I didn't know they were edible, but we were aware of their wearability :-).

compost in my shoe said...

This is some scary corn! Children of the corn stuff.......ohhhhhhh.