Field corn, or maize, has been grown in Central America and Mexico for centuries. It was an important food source for Mesoamerica’s early tribal settlers where it grew as a field grass with edible seed buds.
Though field corn is now produced primarily for animal feed, cooking oils, and producing ethanol, it was the precursor to what we call ‘sweet’ corn. Sweet corn is a genetic mutation of field corn that causes kernels to store more starch.
During the growing cycle, the conversion of sugar to starch is slowed and moisture is retained, leading to a sweeter taste.
Sweet corn in the United States was grown in the Southwest and in the colonies by the mid-1700s, where it was cultivated by European settlers. The earliest commercial variety, called Papoon, was reportedly acquired from the Iroquois in 1779.
Today, this vegetable remains a staple of the fresh market, especially in the summer months, and is equally sought after as a frozen and canned product. California, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Washington are top domestic producers, though the vegetable is grown across the nation.
Types & Varieties
Sweet corn comes in three kernel colors: yellow, white, and bicolor (though a blue-kernel variety pioneered by the Iroquois still exists).
In recent decades, Supersweet hybrids have become more prevalent, as these varieties offer a sweeter flavor, higher resistance to disease, and longer shelf life.
Common sweet corn varieties include Butter and Sugar, Cotton Candy, Honey and Cream, Illini Gold, Jubilee, Kandy Korn, Maple Sweet, Peaches and Cream, Pearl White, Silver Queen, Snow White, Sundance, and Tuxedo.
Sweet corn should be planted in well-drained soil with a 5.8 to 6.6 pH level. If crops are grown in sandy soil, irrigation is critical for ideal pollination and kernel development. Soil temperature is also a key factor and should not fall below 50°F for conventional varieties for optimal growth.
For supersweet varieties, soils should reach 60°F as germination is reduced in cooler conditions. Typically, plants will emerge in 14 days from 50°F soil, and in only 5 days in soils with a temperature of 70°F.
Ample soil moisture will increase crop yields and improve quality. Irrigation should be initiated before soil becomes dry—at least 1 to 1.5 inches a week. The most critical time for watering plants is during tasseling and silking.
Sweet corn is ready for harvest approximately 18 to 22 days after silking, when the ear is fully formed (size and length vary by variety), has a close-fitting husk, relatively dried silk, and fully developed kernels that secrete liquid when pierced.