Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


July 31, 2012

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The strange sex life of corn

CROSSVILLE — This year corn is newsworthy because of its effect on the economy but now is always the time of year when corn fills the minds of those who love  corn on the cob fresh from the field. When I was a child as soon as I had enough teeth I looked forward to meals of what my family called ‘roastanears.’

Gripping that ear of corn slathered with butter with two hands was not  easy but worth the effort. Eventually corn holders came on the market and it was an easier and much less messy way to hold the corn while munching on row after row of kernels.

After frozen foods became a way of life fewer generations had any idea of the journey that naked ear all wrapped in plastic went through from the field to freezer to table. They never experienced the effort it took to shuck the tough husk to expose the golden ear of corn cushioned in a mass of corn silk threads which had to be carefully removed. All the history of an ear of corn’s life was gone.

I have seen many fields of corn but never did I connect sex with corn until last week when I saw this sentence “It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well.” It appeared in a short article discussing the effect of high temperatures on this year’s corn crop.

Tennessee’s corn is suffering from the high temperatures and various degrees of drought conditions from normal to abnormally dry in the east. In the western part of the state it is moderate to severe drought. The ratings for Tennessee’s corn crop are: very poor 25%, poor 30%, fair, 27%, good 17% and excellent 1%.

But back to corn-sex. In his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, author, naturalist and gardener Michael Pollen describes the strange sex life of corn. The female sex organs are hidden within the tough husk and the only way to get to them is by the silk thread that extends from the husk. First a grain of pollen must fall on the very tip of the thread and then move down six or seven inches through a tiny tube which takes several hours. If the journey to pollinate is successful it results in a single kernel! This act is repeated more than eight hundred times before there is a complete ear.  For a bushel of corn the number is about eighty thousand times. 

Those astonishing figures will come to mind whenever I pass a field of corn. Since those early days when my new teeth were strong enough to make quick work of ‘roastanears,’ time has taken its toll on those teeth and now I have only happy memories as I eat my corn off the cob!

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