- Nancy Redfeather
It’s Time to Grow Corn in Hawaiʻi: Tips on Growing Popcorn, Sweet Corn, & Flour Corn in Your Garden
If you haven’t tried growing corn varieties in your garden yet, make this the year to get the seed into the ground and enjoy it’s culinary delights. I’m talking sweet corn, popcorn, flour corns for cornbread and polenta, and corn to create hominy. Now is a great time to start your corn and I will talk you through this in the Blog!
Corn evolved in the tropics of Central Mexico around 7,000 years ago, where it became a staple food for the Indigenous People of the Americas. Corn is an important member of the grass family. Corn (Zea mays) was domesticated from a wild plant called teosinte (Zea mexicana). This species was and is considered sacred. Zea mays is central to Mayan creation stories and its history is completely interwoven with the Indigenous People of both North and South America. Like the Hawaiian creation story of the Kalo, first came the food plant and then came the people.
Corn needs full sun to grow well and loves abundant rainfall throughout it's growing season. Starting your seeds by the first part of March will give you a five to six month growing season, before the light begins to “fall” in September. There are many advantages to planting corn in the growing light during the rainy season in Hawai’i. Corn is a heavy feeder and loves water while it is growing. The winter rains will nourish the plants and give them a good start to their life. The reproductive phase of ear and tassel begins between three to four weeks after planting. Getting your plot started and catching the last month of the winter rains is an strong advantage. Experiment and don't forget to keep notes in your journal for next year.
Plant corn varieties in a block of rows instead of one or two long rows. Direct seed corn 2 inches deep in the block (a square) of 3-4 rows, planting seeds every 4 inches and thinning to one foot apart with 2 feet between rows. Direct seeding in a block formation will help to ensure good kernel pollination and a fuller cob. Plant in full sun in well prepared soil with compost or fertilizer, and make sure the seedlings are watered! Sometimes wandering birds like turkeys or chickens can pull up a small seedling looking for the corn seed, so keep an eye out for that. Corn is wind pollinated and you can “ encourage” better pollination by occasionally shaking the tasseling flowers stalks as they are shedding pollen.
Plant a “block” of corn every 2-3 weeks through June / July if you want a continuous crop of sweet corn for your table or to make flour or popcorn. Corn will very easily cross pollinate, so be sure to seed only one variety at a time, every 2-3 weeks. This will ensure that pollen is not traveling and accidentally pollinating different varieties in the field.
Varieties currently available on the Hawai'i Seed Growers Network Marketplace:
Growers for the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network introduced many new varieties in 2021. We hope to have more varieties available on the Marketplace as the year progresses.
Japanese White Hulless Popcorn is an open-pollinated heirloom selection that was grown for many years in Kona and Hilo/Puna and has proven to be a popcorn variety well suited for Hawaii’s gardens and environments. A true "popcorn lovers' popcorn”, once you taste it you will want to grow this variety every year! The origins of this variety are obscured, but it was first offered in the Livingston Seed Catalog in 1918. Neither from Japan nor hulless, this variety will quickly become your favorite. The first time I tasted this popcorn I realized that I had never really tasted a good popcorn before. The selection is an old favorite with medium size pure white kernels that are extremely tender, in fact when you chew them they seem to “dissolve” and melt in your mouth - by far the most tender popcorn I have ever tasted! Popcorn varieties in the US are quickly disappearing; in 1900 there were 52 varieties of OP Popcorn listed in seed catalogs and today there are very few left. This variety is highly recommended for all School Gardens!
Dynamite Popcorn is another proven open-pollinated popcorn variety for Hawaii’s home gardens. Grown and selected in Hawai’i for many years, this selected variety is a delicious classic mushroom shaped yellow popcorn with a smooth buttery flavor. Also known as “Yellow Giant” or “Sunburst", stalks reach 5 feet high with a good root and stalk strength. Ears are from 6-9 inches long and have 12-14 rows of big yellow kernels. It is NOT uncommon to harvest 1# per stalk. Dynamite is a high quality gourmet popcorn that is exceptionally crisp, tender and “corny.” It was first introduced in 1931 and has the largest kernel of any of the OP popcorns.
Pearly White Flour Corn is a marriage of far flung maizes from Antigua and Zimbabwe. A good standing and strong corn that can be grown in tropical or subtropical areas. This variety of white corn is excellent for pozole and hominy. For those of you who have not made pozole before, it is a Mexican Soup/Stew, here is just one of many recipes available. Check out this great video to watch step by step processing.
Early Caribbean originally came from the British Virgin Islands. This unusual and beautiful variety is well adapted to Hawaii's climates and soils. It's kernels are on the flinty side (having a hard outer layer) and makes a good cornmeal for baking. Check out this polenta recipe so you can see how it is used or dry and grind and use in your favorite cornbread recipe!
Brewbaker’s Brittle Nine Sweet Corn:
The Brittle Nine Sweet Corn comes from tropical corn master James Brewbaker, who crossed a breeding population derived from the famous Open Pollinated Hawaiian Supersweet #9 with six of his field corn breeding populations, selected over multiple decades for pest and disease resistance. The resulting Brittle Nine is a vigorous, tall sweet corn, and produces a most delicious ear! This variety is a "super sweet" corn resulting from the brittle-1 gene (bt1) uniquely used by Brewbaker as opposed to most super sweets which use the shrunken-2 gene (sh2). The brittle gene was found to have better adaptation to tropical soil conditions during germination. Save some seed and further adapt to your “place.” If you love sweet corn, you have to try this incredibly delicious variety developed by Hawaii's master of sweet corn, Dr. Brewbaker!
Photos of Dr. James Brewbaker in his corn plots at UH Waimanalo, courtesy of CTAHR.
Corn Culinary & Resource Tips:
If you want to get into the history of how a “traditional” cornfield was planted in South America, called la milpa, you will want to read this chapter from Beautiful Corn: America's Original Grain from Seed to Plate.
Homemade Corn Tortillas: I have not personally tried this yet but corn grower Jay Bost says that either Pearly White OR Early Caribbean corn can be used to make homemade corn tortillas. Follow this step-by-step recipe that will walk you through the steps involved to making delicious homemade corn tortillas.
My favorite cornbread recipe: I love making cornbread because it is a quick bread that is both delicious and healthy, and can incorporate my garden's bounty. Once your corn is dried and ground into a meal you can store it in a cool place in a tightly sealed jar and use it in this recipe. I skip the sugar in the recipe but sometimes add a little maple syrup, and serve the cornbread warm with honey butter!
My personal favorite corn resource and inspiration is by the infamous Chinese Food & Agriculture Blogger Liziqi. “The Golden Season of Corn” is a 9 minute video showing many delicious uses of corn in China. Really, you won’t be sorry you clicked on this link!
TIPS for Planting and Processing Popcorn:
When planting popcorn, plant in a “ block” of rows instead of one long row, as you will have much better pollination. Corn is wind pollinated and you can “ encourage” better pollination by occasionally shaking the flowers stalks as they are shedding pollen. Popcorn should be harvested from the field when the outside husk and silks turn brown and shrivel. I like to take the outside husk off and dry the corn cobs by hanging them in bunches on my porch. Popcorn must be thoroughly dry before taking the kernels off the cob in a bowl on your lap. When it is dry, the kernels should come off easily. Before popping, do a test run with 10-20 kernels and make sure it is dry enough to pop well. If not, more drying will be needed in Hawaii’s moist environment. Occasionally I put the kernels in my solar dryer for ONE additional day, then try another popping. Store in a tight fitting glass jar on the shelf. There is a very useful tool called a Hand Popcorn Sheller, available easily on the internet that is totally worth the $8 price! The Early Caribbean and Pearly White must also be dried before using in recipes. Bon Appetit!