Juicy, sweet kernels of corn transform, overnight, into hideous, purple-grey, tumors. And these tumorous galls are delicious!
Introducing, corn smut.
Now, corn has many pests and diseases: corn earworms, European corn borers, seed-corn maggots, soft rot, seed rot, fusarium root and ear rot, maize dwarf mosaic, pythium stalk rot, and damping-off disease, just to name a few. If you are an American corn farmer, corn smut is not what you want to see in your field. A lot of money and effort have gone into eradicating corn smut in North America.
Corn smut in your garden is something else entirely.
While this distant cousin of mushrooms reduces crop size and makes ears of corn unmarketable for July picnics and canning purposes, it is edible and delicious. Unlike other corn problems, corn smut is said to taste like truffles, with a sweet, earthy, inky flavor. If it appears in your garden and you don’t want it, your local chef would love to hear from you!
To my way of thinking, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or, if you are given corn smut, make quesadillas! Corn smut can be eaten raw, or added to many dishes, such as omelets, soups, sauces, meat dishes, or even desserts! As an extra bonus, corn smut is high in lysine. This means eating it with corn, or any other seed, provides a complete dietary protein.
Corn smut description
Also known as devil’s corn, common smut, boil smut, Mexican truffles, or huitlacoche [pronounced weet-la-COH-cheh], corn smut is a parasitic fungus that can occur on any aboveground portion of a corn plant as purplish blobs covered with papery greenish-white tissue. These fungi prefer meristem tissue and the galls are mostly seen on the ears of corn. Ear galls are significantly larger than those which form elsewhere on the corn plant.
Corn smut gets its purple color from pigments called anthocyanins. These are the same pigments found in blueberries, raspberries, and purple cauliflower. When you cook with corn smut, don’t be surprised to see the purple color change to black, because it will. Purple pigments generally don’t hold up well to heat.
Corn smut lifecycle
The corn smut fungus (Ustilago maydis) infects plant ovaries, causing kernels to swell up into large purple galls that are filled with fungal threads, called hyphae, and spores. Corn smut spores are already in the soil and can be carried on the slightest breeze or splashed water from rain or irrigation. Dry conditions and temperatures between 78°F and 93°F are all that corn smut needs to get started. Adding nitrogen or applying manure increases the chance of corn smut developing on your corn plants. Plant injuries also increase infection rates.
Corn plants try to defend themselves against corn smut by blasting the invaders with reactive oxygen (hydrogen peroxide). Sadly, from the corn plant’s perspective, this bubbling action simply spreads the smut spores.
If smut appears on your corn, fear not! Instead, harvest the galls while they are young and have the texture of a foamy popcorn, kind of firm and spongy. These moist galls are ready for harvesting 2 or 3 weeks after infection appears. As the galls mature, they turn dry and are mostly filled with unappetizing dry, black fungal spores.
Love it or hate it, corn smut is here to stay, so you may as well learn to cook with it (or sell it).
With the 4th of July right around the corner, watermelons are a common sight. But watermelon mosaic is something I hope you never see.
Watermelon mosaic (WMV) is a viral disease that can also infect cantaloupes, squash, and other cucurbits, along with some legumes, such as peas and alfalfa, and chenopods. Infected watermelons look like they have ring worm.
There are two different watermelon mosaic viruses: WMV1 and WMV 2. While these are two distinctly different viruses, we are going to throw them together for the sake of this discussion.
Symptoms of watermelon mosaic
Symptoms of watermelon mosaic virus vary by host, but the first sign of infection is light discolorations in the leaves. This irregular chlorosis is usually seen along leaf edges (margins) and along veins. Leaves may also be smaller than normal, deformed, blistered, or wrinkled. That wrinkling is called rugosity. Finally, infected fruit develops a mottled appearance. The mottling looks like light-colored rings just under the skin. Warty growths may also appear. Fruit production is significantly reduced.
How to prevent watermelon mosaic
Spread predominantly by aphids and occasionally leaf miners, watermelon mosaic virus can also be carried on garden tools and clothing, so sanitize your tools regularly. The virus is only able to survive inside aphids for a few hours, so creating physical distance between potential carriers of the virus can also reduce infection. Crop rotation and removing infected plants can break this disease triangle.
Weeds, such as lambsquarters, cheeseweed, goosefoot, and Russian thistle, can act as vectors for this disease, so keep them away from your watermelon and other susceptible plants.
Horticultural oil spray can also interrupt transmission of this virus, but may cause problems of its own.
Insecticides are not effective because the disease is transmitted before the chemicals can kill the carrier. You can use reflective mulches under susceptible plants to repel aphids. If you use reflective mulch, be sure to remove it before the summer sun uses it to cook your plants.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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