The Most Beautiful Corn

isn’t the one that’s most delicious or the one with the prettiest kernels. In fact it tastes terrible and you can’t see the kernels at all, because the corn I have in mind is Zea mays var. japonica, usually sold as Zea japonica or Japanese ornamental corn.

Zea mays var. japonica

Zea mays var. japonica

Whatever you call it, it produces brilliantly striped green, white and pink foliage, starting quite early in the season. First growth is plain green, but as long as the leaves get plenty of sun, they start coloring up when the plants are about 3 feet tall. 

They make it to full size of 5 or 6 feet in 6 weeks or so, then stay put looking fresh until browned by frost. Or, more likely, harvested for bouquets. We grow this corn in the cutting garden and while it’s always a wrench to sacrifice a plant (removing a large section of stem doesn’t make them branch) the reward is spectacular.

Saving seeds is easy as long as japonica is the only corn you grow and it’s definitely worth it – purchased packets don’t contain much and just a few plants provide plenty of seed. In Maine, the small cobs of maroon kernels have seldom fully filled out  when prudence dictates harvesting before the deer and raccoons take notice. But a few partials have always been more than enough. 

Note: we don’t grow it in New York because it might cross with the table corn, a lose-lose marriage that would produce sweet corn we couldn’t eat and seeds of a mystery that probably wouldn’t be striped. Our favorite table corn, heirloom Black Mexican aka Black Aztec, is discussed in some detail here.

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