Tropical Corn Varieties for the Home Garden in Hawai’i: Growing Information, Recipes, and Lore
Updated: Jan 21
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.
Corn evolved in the American tropics, where it became a staple food of all early civilizations of Native Americans. Corn is an important member of the grass family and was domesticated from the wild corn, known as teosinte (Zea mexicana) about 7000 years ago. This species was considered sacred, was central to Mayan creation myths, and it’s history is completely interwoven with the Indigenous peoples of North and South America.
Corn needs full sun to grow well, and starting at the end of January the daylight hours will be increasing about 30 minutes per month until June, when light will begin to decrease. There are advantages for planting corn in the growing light during the wet season in Hawai’i. Corn is a heavy feeder and loves water when it is growing. The winter rains will help get it started. But heavy rains when it is flowering and pollinating discourage complete kernel pollination. The reproductive phase of ear and tassel begins between three to four weeks after planting. So catching the last month of the winter rains to get the plot started might be an advantage. Experiment and keep your notes in your journal!
Plant corn varieties in a block of rows instead of one or two long rows. Plant corn seeds 1-2 inches deep in a block (a square) of 3-4 rows, planting seeds every 4 inches (and thinning to one foot apart) with 2 feet between rows. This will help to ensure good kernel pollination and a fuller cob. Plant in full sun in 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!
The growers for the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network have been working with 4 new varieties for 2021. We will have more varieties available on the Marketplace as the year progresses. Our new varieties are:
Japanese White Hulless Popcorn is an open-pollinated heirloom selection that was grown for many years in Kona, Hilo and 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 it 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” in your mouth, making it most tender popcorn I have ever tasted! Popcorn varieties in the US are quickly disappearing; in 1900 there were 52 varieties of Open Pollinated 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 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. Another great variety for School Gardens!
Pearly White is a marriage of far flung maizes from Antigua and Zimbabwe, and is 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 in just one of many recipes available.
Early Caribbean originally came from the British Virgin Islands. This 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!
Homemade corn Tortillas: I have not tried this yet but I think that either Pearly White OR Early Caribbean corn could be used to make homemade corn tortillas. Here is a step by step recipe that will help you make them: https://delishably.com/special-diets/Best-Homemade-Corn-Tortillas
My favorite cornbread recipe: I love making cornbread because it is a quick bread. Once your corn is dried and ground into a meal you can store it in a cool place and use it in this recipe. I skip the sugar in the recipe and serve the cornbread warm with honey butter! https://www.blessthismessplease.com/the-best-cornbread-recipe/
Included below are planting recommendations for all the corn varieties
When planting corn varieties, 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. Corn cobs 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 dry, the kernels should come off easily. Before popping, do a test run with 10-20 kernels and make sure they are 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!
Also, corn crosses readily with other corn varieties, so plant different varieties at least 3 weeks apart to prevent crossing.
I hope this information will be inspiring for you to try one or more of these varieties this year. If you have more questions along the way, please use the leave me a message in the Comments Box below.
See you next month,