My dad told me of his dad keeping chosen corn ears in the attic of their house to use for seed next year. This must have been in the 1920-1930 on their central Iowa farm. This practice occurred throughout the USA for a few centuries, building on the several thousand years of selection done by others.
Probably the most significant contribution, however, was made when the male and female parts of the corn plant were separated morphologically on the plant. This assured continual cross pollination in these varieties, even with farmers saving seed. Pollen from tassel does not fall perpendicularly but drifts slightly with the slightest of wind, assuring that open-pollinated plants maintain some variability. Hybrid seed producers are very aware of the ease for maize pollen to contaminate seed production as well as anyone attempting to keep grain free of GMO traits.
We should not complain about this character. The ease of cross pollination in corn allowed genetic variability available to modern breeders that is distinct from any other crop. When Robert Reid, in east central Illinois, got a poor stand with his southern dent variety, he planted an early new England flint variety to fill in the field. Future generations from that field not only produced winners in corn show contests in the early 1900’s but also the foundation of Reid Cornbelt Dent, a variety commonly used in the Midwestern USA corn belt for many years. And later became a major source for development of parent inbreds of current hybrids. It has been estimated that there were over 500 established varieties of corn in USA in 1900. There must have been countless numbers of sub-varieties as well as individuals saved their preferred ears for the next season. Separation of tassels from ear shoots, the feature that occurred and was selected early in the move from Teosinte to corn, allowed continuous genetic variability within each of the varieties. We continue to tap into that variation with today’s hybrids.
About Corn Journal
The purpose of this blog is to share perspectives of the biology of corn, its seed and diseases in a mix of technical and not so technical terms with all who are interested in this major crop. With more technical references to any of the topics easily available on the web with a search of key words, the blog will rarely cite references but will attempt to be accurate. Comments are welcome but will be screened before publishing. Comments and questions directed to the author by emails are encouraged.