Corn, or maize, is a cereal grain that was domesticated over 10,000 years ago in the Southern Mexico region. In many parts of the world, it is a staple food, surpassing other staples like wheat and rice.
As well as being eaten whole it is used for animal feed, corn starch, corn syrup, corn ethanol, corn oil, cornmeal, cornflakes, popcorn, etc.
There are several types of corn variety, including sweet corn, field corn, popcorn, flint corn, pod corn, flour corn and dent corn.
In this article, I will discuss open pollinated corn, and why many varieties of corn that are readily available are corn hybrids.
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What is Open Pollinated Corn?
Open pollinated corn is varieties that are naturally pollinated as opposed to artificially cross-pollinated hybrids. They will reliably produce seeds that are similar to the parent plant.
Open-pollinated corn varieties are readily available, but are still quite rare. The nature of corn breeding and reproduction means that hybrids are more appealing for mass production by commercial corn seed breeders.
There is a myth that open pollinated plants are “weaker” and more unreliable than hybrids, this is not true. However, they do need more care and attention during the selection of the best seeds to save, so they are not the best for the large-scale farming or corn.
Corn pollinates sexually each year, typically by the wind. The pollen from the male tassels land on the female flowers to produce cobs.
Because of that, breeding plots usually need to be large to grow corn successfully and farmers worry that their corn could lose certain desirable traits as the pollination can be hard to control. Smaller gardens are harder to grow if you want natural pollination to occur, but you can still grow open pollinated corn and save those seeds.
Large-scale production of corn by most commercial corn producers and farmers rely on hybrid corn which has been produced by artificial pollination in isolation. That helps to enhance desirable characteristics with a high level of uniformity.
Open Pollinated Corn Varieties
While there are still quite a few open pollinated corn variety offerings, they seem to be more of a novelty than a staple.
You can get sweet corn, field corn, popcorn and I’m sure many others. However, because of the large area needed to grow it, and as it is wind pollinated, cross-pollination happens very easily with corn.
If you don’t want cross-pollination, it is recommended to have a distance of 400-500 feet between corn fields on the farm. That’s why most private gardeners are only able to grow one type of corn in their garden.
Open-Pollinated vs Hybrid vs Heirloom Corn
Most varieties of open pollinated corn are actually heirloom (more than 50 years old), as corn has been a staple food in the U.S. for over 4,000 years.
The main difference between open pollinated and hybrid corn, is that hybrids have been bred to need large amounts of fertilizers, chemicals and sprays to provide an identical, standardized environment in every field.
Heirlooms and open pollinated seed corn varieties are often far more capable of adapting to a different environment. As with all open pollinated plants, a greater level of man power is needed in selecting the best seeds to save to get good results year after year.
It is much more manageable for factory farming to breed corn seed in isolation and then mass crop the corn grown in the fields for distribution later.
Read more about the differences between Open Pollinated vs Hybrid vs Heirloom Seeds.
How to Grow Open Pollinated Corn?
Corn needs warm soil to germinate and will rot if conditions are too cold when you plant the seeds. You should start them in modules during germination periods, preferably in a greenhouse if you live in a temperate climate. Then put them outside once germinated, and spaced about 14-18″ apart.
It’s best to plant them in a block rather than a line to ensure good pollination. If you only have a few plants and want to get full corn cobs, you can manually collect the pollen from the tassels and rub it on the silks.
The amount of fertilizer and the type of soil that’s preferable depends on the variety of corn you’re growing. You could try out different varieties to see what suits your conditions best, although there are some very adaptable varieties out there that do well in lots of different conditions.
Generally, if you plant them in well-composted soil and get one inch of rain a week, you won’t even need to water them.
While a lot of countries have banned Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), most of the corn grown in America is GMO corn. They have been created to tolerate large amounts of herbicides, as well as to resist disease and pests.
As corn is in such demand, it is easy to see why farmers might opt for GMO corn. It is much easier to create disease resistant plants in a lab than by a mass selection process or open pollination.
GMO plants will produce more uniform crops, while also being less labor intensive. Corn breeders can simply spay concoctions of fertilizers and chemicals to ensure a good crop.
This is why commercial farmers will often go for GMO corn, as they are relying on selling their crop production in mass to large companies or grocery stores. Also, huge acres of fields can mean unwanted cross pollination can happen more easily than in a small private greenhouse or allotment.
However, the negative impact of GMOs on the environment is undeniable, and one could also argue that having these “easy” growing options drives down the price of the commodity.
Organic corn has been growing in popularity, even if crop growth is more difficult. There are more and more organic farmers now growing ears of corn.
Final Thoughts on Open Pollinated Corn
Open pollinated corn is a joy to grow and tastes so amazingly fresh that you may never want to buy store-brought corn again!
If you find a variety that grows well in your climate, I recommend setting up a seed swap to encourage more people in your area to grow it.
Seed swaps are great for finding plants from organic farms that do well in your locale, and if you’re lucky, you may even stumble across a local heirloom variety.