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Corn Silk

The silks hanging out of an ear of corn are critically important for harvest down the road
Photo credit Iowa State University

It’s a pain to remove all the silk when you’re husking sweet corn. However, you wouldn’t be eating any if the silks weren’t there. And if you’re picking off a lot of the stringy stuff, you’ve probably got a nice, full ear of corn.

All corn plants are a bit of an oddity among the major crops that we grow because the male and female flowers are separated physically on the plant. Bob Nielsen is an agronomy professor at Purdue University. He says the tassel represents the male flower. The silks and the ovules attached to the silks on the ear represent the female flowers. The magic happens when pollen from the tassel is captured by a strand of silk.

"It’ll germinate and puts out a pollen tube that actually penetrates the silk and grows or develops down the interior of the silk," says Nielsen. "Once it gets to the ovule, then the male genetic component in that pollen fertilizes with the female genetic component of the ovule, then the miracle of life occurs, and we get a kernel developing."

Each silk represents a kernel of corn, so it’s very important that tassels and silks are in sync with each other at the right time and in the right conditions.

"If the silks emerge and there’s no pollen well that’s not good, and if the pollen begins to shed from the tassel before any silks are out that’s not good," he says. "And so, that needs to be in synchrony in order to maximize the number of kernels that will eventually develop on the ear."

Corn silk colors can vary from yellow to purple to red depending on the genetics of the hybrid. Popcorn hybrids in particular often have vibrant purplish silks. But all silks eventually dry up and turn brown.

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