Beautifully hued ears of dried ornamental corn appear this time of year in autumn decorations. In South Dakota, each fall the Corn Palace at Mitchell sports fresh murals from the naturally colored corn. This multipurpose crop can also be used for roasting ears (less sweet than sweet corn), or ground for corn meal or a nutritious flour. Squirrels and other wildlife will appreciate any leftovers.
Ornamental corn is often known as “Indian” corn, reflecting its origin. In fact, all corn (maize) originated in North America, most likely in Mexico, and there is evidence that corn has been cultivated there for at least 7,500 years. From Central American, the cultivation of corn spread across North America, with native peoples developing varieties and types adapted to their climate and soils. It is telling that all corn was termed “Indian corn” in the United States Department of Agriculture reports into the 1890’s. Over time, sweet corn, popcorn, flour, and field (dent and flint) corn were developed from the original corn varieties. These are differentiated not by the color of the kernels, but rather by characteristics of the endosperm (the storage tissue that makes up most of the kernel). Popcorn is a type of flint corn that has very hard small kernels, and this characteristic has been incorporated into many of the newer ornamental varieties that have smaller ears.
Next year, you might want to grow some of your own ornamental corn or popcorn. These varieties can be planted a little earlier than sweet corn, at the same time as field corn or about the time lilacs bloom. Similar to sweet corn, ornamental and popcorn production requires particular attention to watering. The soil should be well-drained (they do not tolerate standing water), but kept moist until the silks have dried down, in order to form kernels from stem to tip of the cobs. Remember that these corn varieties will cross-pollinate with other types of corn, so you must isolate them from both sweet and field corn.
Harvest ornamental corn once the husks are dry; if weather is damp at harvest, pull the husks back and spread the ears out to dry. Harvest popcorn once the kernels and husks are dry, and remove the husks from the ears. Place the ears in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area to dry for another week or two, until kernels pop well (not too chewy). Once the ears are properly dried, shell them and store the kernels in an air-tight container; refrigeration will prolong shelf life.