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Using decorative corn in Thanksgiving displays

This can be difficult to grow but you’ll be pleased with the results

Decorative cobs combine with some mini-pumpkins to make an attractive Thanksgiving basket.

In spring I admire pictures of decorative corn in seed catalogues, and in fall it appears at some farmers’ markets, where it is priced quite high. One reason is that it is very difficult to grow, particularly in my Zone 2 area. It demands a long growing season and a hot summer to mature before fall frost strikes it down.

I tried growing it without success in my Birtle garden 30 some years ago — the kernels were not even fully filled when hard fall frost put an end to it. Discouraged, I didn’t try again until about 10 years ago when I grew it on my brother-in-law’s farm, shortly after my wife and I moved to Minnedosa. It was “Painted Mountain,” an extra-early variety. Even though touted as being “short season,” its time to mature from seeding was 85 days. Although I knew it would be iffy, some farmers grow field corn in our area and it requires a similar frost-free growing season, so I decided to give it a try.

“Painted Mountain” is not simply a decorative corn as it is listed as “a Native Indian decorative flour corn,” as the kernels contain soft starch which will produce corn flour. The variety was developed specifically for the cold-soil areas of Montana so I thought it would be a good experiment. I was not interested in using it to produce flour, but wanted to get the brightly coloured cobs for use in fall decorations. The kernels can be red, orange, burgundy, and even purple and a host of other interesting hues.

“Painted Mountain” cobs are hung to dry.
“Painted Mountain” cobs are hung to dry. photo: Albert Parsons

I planted the seeds as early as I thought practical to avoid late-spring frost — about the middle of May. It was slow to emerge because of a cold rainy spring, but eventually it came up and grew vigorously. It developed cobs about the same time as did our main-crop corn and by the end of the first week in September the kernels in the cobs were hard to the touch. Even though the husks were still green, I harvested the cobs to avoid having them freeze. Because instructions said to leave the cobs on the plants until the husks were brown, I was worried they would not cure properly, but had no choice as a hard fall frost was imminent.

Knowing that mould could be a problem and that drying needed to occur quickly, I peeled the husks back off the cobs — being careful to leave the husks attached at the base of each cob as I wanted the dried husks to be a part of my fall displays. I removed the silk and tied the cobs in bundles of three, by simply tying a piece of twine around the ends of the husks. I hung the bundles on a line in the garage, cob end down, and set up a fan to blow air on the cobs. For the first week I also ran the electric heater in the garage to create even more air movement and to reduce the humidity to facilitate drying.

I was amazed at how quickly the cobs and husks dried. I had been worried that the kernels might shrink but they didn’t, so they must have been mature enough when I picked them.

This drying process continued for a couple of weeks or so and when the cobs appeared dry enough to use in displays, I began the creative process of putting together Thanksgiving/autumn displays. Some of the cobs were simply placed in baskets on beds of raffia, which emphasized the beauty of their colours. Other cobs I combined in baskets with mini-pumpkins and decorative gourds, finished off with a big bow of wide ribbon in autumn colours. Raffia, artificial autumn leaves and potpourri were used as filler in some of the baskets to add more colour and fill in any gaps. I also made large porch arrangements of dried plant material, using goldenrod, dock, pampas grass, wild tansy and cattails, placing cobs at the base of each arrangement.

If you’re interested in growing decorative corn “Painted Mountain” may be a good one to try.

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