Saturday, July 26, 2008

Corn Sax 101

Ok.......the strangest thing happened yesterday morning. There I was, sitting on the porch, in my flannel nightgown, sleepily enjoying my first sips of coffee for the day. Birds in the tree branches were chirping their morning greetings, and the cornfield in the distance was glimmering in the gentle sunlight. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was realizing that detasseling season had arrived, and I chuckled as my own memories were activated of that "fun" Iowa teenage-rite-of-passage activity, and was smugly thankful not to be part of a detasseling crew this morning!

Suddenly------and, don't ask me to explain how it happened, for I do not know------I found myself standing in the jungle of drippy cornstalks in yonder field, as if transported in a dream, still in my flannel nightgown, old clogs on my feet, and my camera clutched in my hand. Goodness gracious! Simply because I had insensitively chuckled inwardly about, one truly needs to guard their thoughts......apparently so!

Since I was there in the rustling corn environs, I decided to take a few photos for the blog, for the advantage of any readers who have arrived here from an alternate universe where corn doesn't exist.


Pointing the camera upwards........this is the view........the cornstalks are way above my head by now, at probably eight to to ten feet tall. That would be absurdly tall for a human, but I don't think the corn will reach its normal height this year, due to late planting and adverse spring weather conditions.

Here's my paltry attempt at a close-up view of a tassel just beginning to emerge from its sheath at the top of the corn plant.

Lend me your ear.......but, don't tell anyone........actually, all this tasseling going on is connected with SAX........corn sax, that is. Yes, cornstalks have a sax life! I'm not a botanist or a horticulturalist or an agronomist, or even a plant gynecologist, but I think the tassel could be considered the male part. The tassel releases its pollen, which falls down upon the cornsilk strands, which have emerged from the stalk about halfway down the corn plant. I would say they are the female part. The strands of cornsilk lead downwards into where the ear of corn will form (in sort of a uterus); each strand of silk will produce one corn kernel on the ear of corn. I think that's how it works, anyhow. If I'm wrong........please, someone set me straight!

The silks are rather pink and pretty.........they must be female, right!!?
Well, after seeing all these amazing reproductory sights, I was ready to leave the confines of the soppy, wet camera was getting dripped on. Corn plants are made to catch and hold water, which they do very well. Also, the sharp leaf edges are very apt to cause itching or slice your eyeball, so a cornfield is truly not a comfortable, safe place to spend much time in. And, if you have toddlers is one place you NEVER ever want them to end up lost in!!

The cornstalks stubbornly barred my way from leaving the field, however, and threatened to STALK me in the future, unless I promised to add plenty of "CORN-trast" to one of their photos........which I tried to do with this final scene. I hope they are satisfied!! (They erroneously assumed I have Photoshop, but really it is archaic Picture-It........I didn't enlighten them.)

I also just realized that I failed to explain what "detasseling" is all about. can probably deduce what it involves.........removing the tassel. That needs to be done in fields where the corn is being grown for seed. Usually there are two "male" rows to every six "female" rows, if I remember right. When I detasseled as a teenager, we would walk through the "female" rows------which had already had most of their tops cut off by a machine-----pulling out what remained of the tassels. The pollen from the two "male" rows would then pollinate the silks on the "female" rows. That is how different hybrids of corn are developed and produced for seed.

Detasseling was..... well...... not exactly the most pleasant job in the world, but when you're a teenager, just being with a group of your friends is we usually had a pretty-darn good time. We'd laugh and gossip and joke our way across the fields. Most of the seed corn fields we worked in were located right south of Waterloo, Iowa, in Orange Township. I worked on DeKalb crews, if I remember right. We made $1.50 per hour! I pulled in $150 one summer, and, wow, did I ever feel wealthy!! It was used for back-to-school shopping, though.....:(

We'd start very early in the mornings, of course, when the cornfields were sopping wet. We'd quickly be drenched, our shoes caked with heavy globs of mud. Then the sun would rise higher and hotter in the sky and the fields would get very steamy. Yuck, yuck. Porta-potties had not yet been invented back in the Dark Ages of the early 1970's (also part of that murky era before the advent of cell phones, VCR's, CD's, DVD's, iPOD's). So-----if you can imagine-----we'd have to traipse into someone's farmhouse, in our dirty duds, to use the bathroom. I don't think we went in the fields......for there were boys' crews around, too. Nowadays, the crews are mixed, and when my daughter detasseled, she came home grossed out one day because she had accidently walked up to a boy who was relieving himself in the field. I'm happy our crews were segregated, I guess.

So, yes, if you weren't acquainted with the details of corn sax and detasseling before this......well, consider yourself informed, as of this reading! Aren't you lucky!! Actually, the truth is.......farms are saturated with SAX.......its all around! In the fields, in the barn, in the sheds......even the tractors get involved!! Egads.......hydraulic hoses and hook-ups on tractors have "female" parts and "male" parts. Imagine my mortification when I've been sent by Husband to get parts for the tractor and I have to speak these words across the counter to the poker-faced parts man: "I've been sent to get a male end for this you have one that will fit?" And, yes, that's what they're called, officially......."male" and "female" ends! So, you have to say it that way!! And, people wonder why I'm so meek and quiet.



Trish said...

Oh Jeannelle...this is one of the most interesting posts I have ever read. I know alot about other crops but not really much about corn fields and corn growing. Here where I live I am surrounded by them but this is not in my 'roots'. This was so interesting...and of course, as usual, entertaining. Thanks for a good read over coffee this morning.

rhymeswithplague said...

Well, I'm CORNfused, to say the least. First I thought you said each plant is male and female and each silk becomes a kernel on that particular cob of corn, THEN I think you said in the detasseling process there are two male ROWS for every six FEMALE rows. I presume the MALE rows still have the tassels and "detasseled" rows become the FEMALE rows, but if it's the silk that makes the kernels, how do they form on the FEMALE rows? Or are they already formed before the detasseling? Is wind involved? Bees? Or do the tassels creep over to the female rows each night and creep back home before sun-up? Does Kellogg's tell General Mills? Is "seed corn" different from regular corn? I didn't know there was so much to know about corn (and my Dad was from Iowa)!

Caution said...

I'm confused about the seed corn, too! But what I do know is that I will never look at corn the same way after reading this post.
P.S. You should try using that male/female jargin on a tough Detroit pipe salesman with a missing sense of humor. I will NEVER go to that hardware store again.

"JEANNELLE" said...

Hi, trish!

Thanks for stopping in! And, you reminded me, I should have taken a picture of the "root" of a corn plant, too, with its interesting support system to hold up the stalk. Have a great day!



Oh, you just ask too many questions!!! :) I like your "CORN-fused" idea, though!!

You're correct.......what I wrote about the seed corn rows is confusing. Yes, EVERY corn plant has both the male and female parts. The six rows called "female" have had their male part cut're forcing me to sound like a horror movie, now. Yes, those "female" rows have their silk and ear apparatus intact......remember, that's halfway down on the stalk, way below the cut-off tassels.

The two "male" rows which still have tassels are then responsible for fertilizing ALL those females!! Lucky guys, huh??! I suppose there are ears that form on the "male" plants, too, but those aren't used for seed. Probably they're sold as feed, like normal corn. I could be all wrong about that.....maybe the "male" rows don't form ears, but I would think they do.

Normally, the pollen just falls down from the tassel onto the silks. But, in the seed corn field, the pollen would need to travel several feet sideways......probably that's by wind, but you might be onto something by suggesting the males creep over to the females each wouldn't surprise me!

Seed corn, besides being the result of this specialized pollination process, is also treated with chemicals. As kids, we were always admonished not to touch the seed corn kernels that come in the bags......the kernels are colored bright pink-orange anyway, due to whatever they're treated with. They're not for eating, obviously. I'm worn out. Have a great day!



Oh, know what I'm talking about! Its not just farm wives that have to endure such things!

Thanks for stopping by! Enjoy your day!

Judy said...

I just spent some time with my Iowa relatives...we all met in Manitoba. My niece has a job 'de-tassling' and 'rogueing' she told us all about it. We don't grow seed corn in this don't know much about those things.

Pat - An Arkansas Stamper said...

Interesting post, Jeannelle.

Memories of my 'life on the farm' seem to be fading somewhat (is this a sign of general mental decline, or just a good thing?). Daddy planted a few acres of corn, maybe 5 or 10 acres (probably for animal feed) and we kids had to 'chop corn' -- thin it out-- when the plants were perhaps only 4 inches tall. No automatically spaced planting back then. I *hated* chopping corn because I always got blisters on my hands from the hoe handle. However, I'd rather have 'chopped' corn than to 'pick' corn. The ears were left on the stalks until they dried, then we pulled them off and hauled them to corn bin in the barn. Dusty, itchy, sneezy work! My arms always developed a rash despite my long-sleeved shirt.

afeatheradrift said...

Our field corn hasn't tassled yet as far as I can see. I walked by it today. Our eating corn has and its shooting silk now too. So we are pretty happy to be getting anything much this year. Most of our garden sucks plain and simple. We will get some tomatoes but not nearly enough. We're going to the farmer's market in a couple of weeks and probably get quantities we can freeze for winter. Worst garden ever for us. dumb weather.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I used to hear about kids detassling corn in the summer, but I never did it.

I love the sight of cornfields though. (I think I've said this before.)

"JEANNELLE" said...

Hi, Judy,

How wonderful your families far apart could meet for a visit! My son rogued today......he said they covered 300 acres today! Thanks for stopping in!


Hi, Pat,

You have quite the memories! My father-in-law used to tell stories of picking ear corn by hand, but I never heard him speak of thinning the rows of corn. Their planter would "check" the corn, which, if I understand correctly, means that a few kernels were planted in hills about one foot apart in the rows. You could sight a row diagonally across the field, too, and both straight ways......that what he said, anyhow.

And, yes, that picking corn by hand does not sound fun. I can understand why you'd want to forget it. It might be a better sign to be forgetful of long-ago memories, anyway. My husband's grandfather had dementia and he thought he was living back in horse and buggy days.....he would look out the window and talk about his horses that were "out there".

Thanks for commenting!


Hi, Sherry,

Yeah, some fields around here are tasseling and some aren't. Soon they all will be. Your sweet corn sounds like its coming along good. Yum! Hope you find good tomatoes at the farmers' market!

Thanks for stopping in!


Hi, Ruth,

It OK really to have missed out on wasn't THAT great. You can say you love the sight of cornfields as often as you want here!! They have a certain mystique about them!

Thanks for stopping by!