With some plants, the fun begins when the season ends. That’s the case with strawberry popcorn, a compact heirloom corn that produces tiny 2- to 3-inch ears of jewel-bright, mahogany-red kernels. Some say the ears look like oversized golf balls; others call them strawberry-shaped. Either way, they’re both pretty and practical.
Use the ears for fall harvest decorations or thrill your kids by making delicious popcorn from them. But that’s not to say strawberry popcorn is a zero until harvest time: The 4-foot stalks make a lovely, eccentric addition to the corner of your vegetable garden or the back of your flower bed.
Common name: Strawberry popcorn
Botanical name: Zea mays ‘Strawberry Corn’
Plant type: Annual
Zones: Annual in all zones
Height: 4 feet
• Sun: Full sun
• Soil: Rich, well drained
• Moisture: Average to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil and prevent weeds.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: Apply nitrogen-rich fertilizer like fish emulsion three times during the season: once at planting time, again when corn plants are 8 inches tall, and again when the tassels appear.
• By seed
Pests and diseases
• Corn borers and corn earworms can do damage.
• Raccoons and squirrels may go after the ripe ears.
• Corn smut and other fungi can be a problem.
• Corn is wind-pollinated, which means the pollen from male tassels must fall on the female silks to grow kernels. Plant corn in blocks or hills instead of a single long row to help ensure good pollination.
• By the same token, don’t plant different varieties of corn right next to each other, because they can easily cross-pollinate. If you’re growing strawberry popcorn and sweet corn, separate them by at least 25 feet; more is better.
• Let the ears of strawberry popcorn dry on the stalk for about a month. After you pick the ears, let the kernels dry on the cob for another month before you use them for popcorn.
All in the family
• Poaceae, or the grass family, is one of the most important plant families for food crops. In addition to corn, it contains rice, wheat, oats, barley, rye, sugarcane, and bamboo.
• Poaceae is one of the largest plant families, with more than 10,000 species.
• Humans have cultivated Zea mays for thousands of years. Research indicates that people in central Mexico began domesticating its wild ancestor about 9,000 years ago.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, illustration courtesy of National Garden Bureau)