Saving Seeds from Sweet Corn

Learn how easy it is to save seeds from sweet corn for next year’s planting.

| October 2015

The Seed Garden (Seed Savers Exchange, 2015) by Micaela Colley & Jared Zystro and edited by Lee Buttala & Shanyn Siegel brings together decades of research and hands-on experience to teach both novice gardeners and seasoned horticulturists how to save the seeds of their favorite vegetable varieties.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Seed Garden.

Many gardeners grow sweet corn in their vegetable gardens, but do not realize that saving seed from a crop of Zea mays is actually quite simple. In particular, hand-pollination is easy to manage because corn plants produce separate and plainly identifiable male and female flowers. Once pollinated, plants are simply grown to seed maturity and harvested. The grains are removed from their cobs and stored for planting in years to come.

Crop Types

Corn is primarily grown for its kernels, which have different culinary uses depending on the type of corn. Varieties are commonly categorized as flint corn, flour corn, dent corn, popcorn, or sweet corn. Flint, flour, and dent corn are differentiated from one another by the character­istics of their endosperm, the part of a seed that provides the embryo with nutrition as it develops. Flint corn has a hard endosperm, flour corn has a soft endosperm, and dent corn has an endo­sperm comprised of hard and soft starches, which results in a small impression—or dent—that is visible on the top of the dry kernel. Dent corn is commonly used for making cornmeal and tortillas and in the production of high-fructose corn syrup. Popcorn is a form of flint corn whose seed coat retains moisture; when the seeds are heated, the steam created causes the seed coats to burst open, popping the kernels. Sweet corn, which is the only type eaten in an immature state, contains one or more mutations that delay or prevent sugar in the kernels from converting into starch, giving the crop its sweet taste. Sweet corn kernels shrink as they dry, giving the mature seeds a wrinkled, translucent appearance. Corn is also grown as animal feed, and a few varieties have been bred so that the whole plant can be used as silage, or fermented animal fodder.

Corn kernels range in color from yellow, white, orange, and red to blue, green, and brown. Some varieties have striped, or variegated, kernels, and many varieties are known for their multicolored ears. Varieties can differ in ear size and shape, tassel color, cob color, plant height, the number of ears produced per plant, and even the arrangement of the kernels on the cob.


Corn was most likely domesticated from teo­sinte, its wild relative, 9,000 years ago in the lowlands of southwestern Mexico. During the next several millennia, corn spread through­out Central America and had spread across the Americas by about 5,000 years ago. By the sixteenth century CE, corn was being grown as an agricultural crop from present-day Argentina to present-day Canada. Around this time, corn was brought from the Americas to the rest of the world by European explorers. South American corn migrated to Africa and southern Europe. Corn from the Caribbean was brought to the coast of North Africa and later to India, and corn from Mexico was introduced to Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Most of the corn grown in Europe was brought from North America.

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