The Best Varieties of Heirloom Corn
Seven varieties of heirloom corn that are as easy to grow as they are to eat.
By Karen K. Will
If you have a patch of well-drained soil, you’ve got most of what it takes to grow heirloom corn. Many old-line, open-pollinated heirloom varieties are surprisingly easy to grow and provide delicious produce, perfect for eating fresh, canning or grinding into meal.
Heirloom Corn Basics
Many varieties are drought-resistant, and plenty can yield a good crop with 90 frost-free days or fewer. Some of these corns prefer to be grown in hills (four to six plants per) spaced on a 3- or 4-foot grid. Others will do fine in rows. Adding nitrogen in the form of composted manure at planting and blood meal at the final hoeing should be all the corn needs in good soils.
Most heirlooms can be planted about two weeks before your last frost date, and will survive light frosts until seedlings are at the four-leaf stage. In addition to the main stalk, some old varieties produce tillers; you can pinch them off or allow them to grow, reaping the reward of miniature nubbin ears.
When it isn’t possible to irrigate, opt for wider row spacing, up to 36 inches. Cultivate as soon after germination as needed, and then once or twice more before hilling. It’s imperative to use shallow cultivation and to hill at speed so soil will be thrown into the row without damaging the plants’ lateral roots.
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Most of the older corn varieties don’t have uniform seed sizes and shapes, so you should adjust your planting equipment for best results. If you have vegetable-seeding equipment, experiment with different plates; tape off holes if the spacing is too close for corn.
If your seed is untreated, don’t worry. Most of the old varieties are quick to germinate and relatively resistant to cold, damp conditions. However, if you typically plant a month before your last frost date, you might want to wait a couple of weeks for a more favorable outlook to plant untreated seeds.
Hilling is imperative for standability of old corns. If you planted in rows, adjust your cultivator shovels to take a shallow cut in the center between rows and move that soil into the row. The combination of depth and speed will allow you to throw sufficient soil into the row to cover the first exposed node. If you planted in hills, simply pull sufficient additional soil to the hill to cover the first node.
In the event your plot is hit with a strong wind and the corn experiences a high frequency of lodging, just wait it out. Most of these old corns will recover completely, sometimes even after being flattened.
Some old varieties, especially those adapted to grow in dry conditions, have not been bred for ear decline, so they remain erect with the tips pointing up. These ears won’t shed rain or heavy dew as well as varieties that decline at maturity; thus, molding of ears can be a problem. Time the planting so the grain will be maturing during typically drier periods, or choose other varieties.
Heirloom Corn Varieties
All varieties listed below can be combined, except where noted.
Oaxacan Green Dent (75 to 100 days; rows) An ancient corn of the Zapotec people of southern Mexico, it’s traditionally used to make green-flour tamales. Ground Oaxacan Green also adds color and flavor to homemade tortillas, polenta, corn mush and even breading for deep-frying. Ten-inch ears are born on 7-foot stalks, producing 12 or more rows of emerald-green kernels. This variety is very drought-resistant and, if watered too often, will tend to lodge under windy conditions.
Hopi Blue (90 to 110 days; hills or rows) With 30% higher protein content than conventional dent corns, this drought-tolerant flint corn is delicious boiled or roasted in the early milk stage, and makes wonderful, antioxidant-rich cornmeal when dried and ground. Don’t overwater this variety or it will tend to lodge more easily.
Mandan Bride (85 to 90 days; hills or rows) A multicolored corn that produces a mixture of flour and flint kernels on every ear, it’s developed from traditional Mandan corns and is highly prized by chefs as a grinding corn for use in polentas and cornbread. Like other Mandan corns, it won’t stand for combining or machine picking, but for the home garden or restaurant market, hand-picking makes it worthwhile. Best shelled right before grinding—or shelled and frozen— to preserve peak flavor.
Painted Mountain (70 to 90 days; hills or rows) Developed over the last 40 years from a number of Northern Native American corns, it’s cold-tolerant and perfect for short growing seasons in relatively dry conditions. This multicolored eight-row corn is good roasted when immature, and ground into meal and flour, imparting a nutty flavor. The plants won’t stand for combining.
Bloody Butcher (100 to 110 days; rows) Developed commercially in Virginia by around 1845, some say it was long a part of Native American commerce by then. This dent corn will produce two to six 8- to 12-inch-long ears on stalks that can reach 12 feet. This corn is delicious when roasted or boiled in the very early milk stage—don’t expect the sugar of modern sweet corns—and is wonderful when ground into meal or parched to make corn nuts.
Golden Bantam (75 to 85 days; rows) A traditional old sweet corn that offers real corn flavor with just the right amount of sugar, this yellow variety was first offered by W. Atlee Burpee in 1902, and it’s been with us ever since. Look for improved strains for longer ears with more than 10 rows of succulent kernels. The plants should stand about 6 feet tall and bear two 8- to 10-inch ears under good conditions.
Stowell’s Evergreen (85 to 105 days; rows) A white sweet corn developed by Nathaniel Stowell and released in about 1848, it’s terrific for canning and fresh eating. Stowell’s produces two 8-inch ears with up to 20 rows of kernels on stalks that might just reach 8 feet tall. Although not as sweet as today’s supersweet hybrids, Stowell’s is famous for holding the sugar longer after picking than most others.
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