Popcorn is one of six different types of corn. Popcorn seeds are the kernels on the cob of a popcorn variety corn plant. The different types of corn have different kernel structures. Popcorn has a hard starch all the way along the outside and a soft starch center with some moisture content. When heated the moisture turns to steam and the steam pressure makes the kernel pop!
Out of all the corn types only popcorn and flint corn, also known as indian corn, have a kernel with a makeup that will pop when heated. But don’t look for indian corn to create colorful popcorn. No matter what color the kernel, once popped popcorn will be either white or yellow.
Growing corn is done the same way regardless of what type it is and popcorn is just another type of corn. But, corn is harvested in two ways, dry harvesting or milk stage harvesting. Only sweet corn is picked by milk stage harvesting and the harvest time needs to be exact because there is a short window when the sweet corn is ripe before the sugar starts to turn to starch making for less sweet and tougher corn on the cob.
Dry harvesting is done by leaving the corn in the field until the husks turn brown. Then harvesting and drying the cobs further. Gardeners do this by taking off the husks and hanging the cobs to dry for about two weeks. Farmers use specialized dryers to heat the corn and moisture testers to test the moisture levels. They want the moisture levels to be at 15%.
At a 15% moisture level the corn is safe to store without worry of rot and this is the level that granaries will accept their corn seed. Typically when they harvest from the field the moisture level will be around 20-25%. For gardeners, dry kernels are rubbed off of the cob and the result is corn seeds. If they came off a popcorn variety corn plant then there is your popcorn seeds to plant for next year or kernels to pop.
The kernels can be popped by putting in a closed off paper bag and heating in the microwave until you hear almost no more popping. Or the kernels can be heated in a skillet with a high temperature oil or with a hot air popper or over a fire.
Popcorn has been enjoyed by human beings for a long time with records of popcorn finds dating back to 3,500 BC. In the 1890’s a candy store owner in Chicago invented the first hot air popcorn popper and soon after deployed street carts with popcorn makers aboard. During the Great Depression the cheap price of popcorn furthered its popularity. Today, the US is the number one producer of popcorn worldwide with most popcorn in the US coming from the corn belt in the Midwest.
Field corn is the most common corn grown and is what we see in about 90% of corn fields. Field corn, also called dent corn, is used mainly for livestock feed, ethanol production, and processed foods like high fructose corn syrup. The other types of corn are sweet corn, flint corn, pod corn, flour corn, and popcorn.
Can You Plant Popcorn Kernels?
Yes you can! And you can plant the kernels from ornamental indian corn and use those for popcorn as well. There are two ways to test the viability of your popcorn kernels.
One is is to just plant them in the dirt. Wait until a few weeks after the last freeze when soil temperatures have increased and plant the kernels a few inches apart in the dirt in a row. Water the row 2-3 times and you should see corn plants emerging within a week or two.
The other is to put the kernels in between two layers of moist paper towels. Just run the paper towels under warm water and wring them out. Then place the kernels in between the layers and place in a plastic bag in a warm area between 75-90 degrees. In 2-3 days there should be sprouts coming from the kernels. If you’re ready to plant read this article, “How Far Apart To Plant Corn?”.
Where Do Corn Seeds Come From?
A corn seed is just a single kernel off of a cob of corn. Corn seeds are grown by farmers. Have you ever heard of detasseling corn? This job is done in corn fields designated for corn seed to be used to grow corn the following year.
This is how corn pollination works. The male part is the tassel on top that releases pollen. The female flower is the silk that appears protruding from the ears. Every piece of silk that appears has the chance to be pollinated and become a single kernel.
For fields that are used for growing corn seed two varieties are selected to create a hybrid variety that might give larger yields and be more drought and disease resistant. Four rows of one variety are grown for every one row of the other variety. The tassels on the rows of four are cut off by a machine and then hand picked after that to make sure 99.7% of the tassels of this variety are removed.
If you ever see a corn field with four short rows and then one tall row it’s a field of corn seed. The tassel from the one row then pollinates the whole field and then that row is removed. This leaves the rows of four that have been cross pollinated and will be harvested for corn seeds that yield the characteristics the farmers like in the two parent varieties.
If you were growing an heirloom variety of blue corn it could very easily end up with some yellow kernels. In this case it would be easy to tell that the corn had been cross pollinated and those kernels that turned up yellow had received pollen from tassels of a different corn variety from corn growing somewhere nearby.
Cross pollination can be a problem if you’re growing popcorn and sweet corn together in your garden. Some of your sweet corn might end up with tough kernels in it. The best way to avoid this is to put bags over the ears of the corn before the silks arrive to keep the pollen off of the silk. Then hand pollinate the ears once the silks arrive with the pollen from the variety you want to pollinate it. If you want to know more here’s an article on corn pollination.
What Do Corn Seeds Look Like?
Corn seeds are just individual kernels from a corn cob. So, corn seeds look like a single kernel of corn, because that’s what they are! Sometimes you may see seed corn that is dyed blue or purple. This is seed corn that is treated with some type of chemical to prevent rot in the field.