Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Colorful Indian, or ornamental, corn has long been associated with fall and especially the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, it is the corn that was eaten at that first Thanksgiving meal.
What is Corn?
Corn (Zea mays) does not occur naturally in the wild. It is a manmade plant, produced within the last 10,000 years via hybridization of a native grass called teosinte that originated in Mexico.
The modern corn that we are familiar with comes in three varieties. Sweet corn has been bred for human consumption. It is higher in sugar than dent corn or Indian corn. Its white or yellow kernels can be canned, frozen, cooked or eaten directly from the cob.
Dent corn, also known as field corn, is also white or yellow and characterized by a pronounced dent in each kernel. It is less sweet than sweet corn and is fed to livestock. Dent corn is also used in industrial products such as ethanol as well as processed into many of the foods we eat. It is the source of the controversial high fructose corn syrup. Both sweet and dent corns are recent introductions.
Indian corn is the original corn that was bred from teosinte grass by Native Americans. It is called flint corn because its kernels are "hard as flint". The kernels contain less moisture than dent or sweet corn and dry better with less chance of spoiling, an important consideration for Native Americans who depended on the dried corn to feed them until the next corn crop ripened the following year. This is the corn that the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to grow. It is still used in dishes such as polenta and hominy.
How to Grow Indian Corn
Indian corn is easy to grow in your backyard. Corn is pollinated by the usual pollinating insects such as bees, but also via the wind blowing the pollen onto neighboring plants. All three types of corn will cross-pollinate with each other so if you are also growing sweet or dent corn, make sure that you plant each type of corn at least 300 yards apart to avoid cross-pollination. Prepare your soil by roto-tilling or turning your soil 6 to 12 inches deep. Corn are heavy feeders, so work in a good amount of compost or leaf mulch.
You can plant your seeds in either rows or hills. If you are planting them in rows, plant one seed every 4 inches in rows that are 18 to 24 inches apart. You will want to thin your seedlings to 12 inches apart when they reach a height of 4 inches. Make sure to weed aggressively so that the corn does not have to compete with the weeds for nutrients. Side dress your rows with compost or 10-10-10 fertilizer after 4 weeks and then every 4 weeks until the corn has ripened.
Alternatively, you can plant your seeds in hills like the Native Americans. Plant 3 to 4 seeds per hill, with the hills spaced 12 inches apart. When your plants are 4 inches tall, thin them, removing any sickly or deformed plants. You can transplant healthy seedlings into any empty spaces on your hills. Weed aggressively and fertilize monthly.
Native Americans used to plant their fields using the Three Sisters: corn, pumpkins and beans. The pumpkin vines shaded out the weeds, the corn provided support for the beans to climb and the beans provided vital nitrogen for the nitrogen hungry corn and pumpkins. All legumes, such as beans, are nitrogen fixing and are often used as cover crops by modern day farmers.
How to Harvest and Dry Indian Corn
Indian corn is ripe and ready for harvest when the outer husks turn brown. Removing the ears from the stalks is easy. Simply grasp the stalk with one hand and the ear with your other hand, then rip the ear off with a downward motion.
To dry your corn, peel the husk all the way back from the ear, exposing the all of the kernels. Tie a string around the base of the husk and hang your corn in a dry, dark place. Make sure your corn is not exposed to the sun while it is drying. Sunlight will fade the brilliant colors.
Test the kernels every few days by pushing against them with your fingernail. When they are completely hard and you are unable to press into them with your nail, your corn is dry and ready for use as decoration or in a craft. To preserve your corn, brush a coat of varnish on it.
Questions & Answers
Question: I live in New Mexico and was given real native indian corn kernels from a local Native American at a festival last August. What month should I plant the kernels in mounds? Does it need to be planted in a sunny area or can it do ok if in partial shade?
Answer: How lucky you are to have been given native corn by a Native American. Too bad that they didn't also recommend when and how to plant it! Corn has a long growing season so it is usually planted 2 weeks after your last frost. The soil should have warmed to about 60F by then. The seeds need warm soil to germinate. If your soil is too cool, they will just sit there waiting for it to warm up. You can plant in mounds or in blocks. Like most vegetables, corn needs full sun. It will not grow in the shade, even partial shade.
Question: How do you save Indian corn to plant?
Answer: Choose the best kernels from the best cobs and after properly drying the kernels, store them in an airtight container somewhere where it is cool and dark (out of the sunlight) and not humid. Many people store seeds that they are saving in their refrigerators.
© 2014 Caren White
Caren White (author) on May 21, 2019:
Soaking seeds before planting is a technique used to soften the seedcoats of seeds with particularly hard seedcoats. The reason that they are so hard is that they need to survive being eaten by birds. Corn is a man-made plant. The seeds were never intended to be spread by birds so the seedcoats are soft. Additionally, because they are man-made, the seeds and the embryos are very fragile. Hot water would kill the embryos rendering the seeds sterile.
Marcey on April 29, 2019:
I read on a website to soak the seeds in hot water for a few hours before planting to soften them. Is this recommended?
Caren White (author) on March 30, 2019:
Stephen, have fun growing your corn and then crafting your fall decor!
stephen on March 30, 2019:
Thank you for all the info. im growing about 20 plants as a hobby and decor in the fall.
Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:
So glad you enjoyed it, Shraddhachawla! And thank you for reading and commenting.
shraddhachawla on October 31, 2014:
Informative Hub ! It has all the possible details about varieties of corn and the method to cultivate it.
Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:
So glad that you enjoyed it, Suzette! I have a bad habit at looking at things like decorations and wondering "how is that grown?" Thank you for reading and commenting.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 31, 2014:
Thank you for instructing us on how to grow Indian corn. This was interesting and informative to read. So appropriate for fall and the coming holidays.
Caren White (author) on October 17, 2014:
Thank you, Flourish. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.
FlourishAnyway from USA on October 16, 2014:
This was interesting. I didn't know about the three sisters.
Caren White (author) on October 15, 2014:
Thank you Heidi. I love the history behind so many holiday traditions. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 14, 2014:
Did not know corn was a "manmade" plant. Interesting! Great hub for this time of year.