Sweet Corn Pollination Problems

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Growers are experiencing quality problems in sweet corn this year related to poor pollination as a result of high heat. This problem is more severe in less stress tolerant varieties and where irrigation is inadequate.

In corn silk elongation begins 7 to 10 days prior to silk emergence from the husk. Every potential kernel (ovule) on an ear develops its own silk that must be pollinated in order for the ovary to be fertilized and develop into a kernel. The silks from near the base of the ear emerge first and those from the tip appear last. Under good conditions, all silks for an ear will emerge and be ready for pollination within a span of 3 to 5 days and this usually provides adequate time for all silks to be pollinated before pollen shed ceases.

Pollen grains are borne in anthers, each of which contains a large number of pollen grains. The anthers open and the pollen grains pour out after dew has dried off the tassels. Pollen is light and can be carried considerable distances (up to 600 feet) by the wind. However, most of it settles within 20 to 50 feet. Pollen shed is not a continuous process. It stops when the tassel is too wet or too dry and begins again when temperature conditions are favorable.

Under favorable conditions, a pollen grain upon landing on a receptive silk will develop a pollen tube containing the male genetic material, develop and grow inside the silk, and fertilize the female ovary within 24 hours. The amount of pollen is rarely a cause of poor kernel set. Each tassel contains from 2 to 5 million pollen grains, which translates to 2,000 to 5,000 pollen grains produced for each silk of the ear shoot.

Poor seed set is often associated with poor timing of pollen shed with silk emergence (silks emerging after pollen shed). Shortages of pollen are usually only a problem under conditions of extreme heat and drought. Extreme heat and desiccating winds can affect pollen germination on silks or pollen tube development leading to poor seed set. Insects that clip silks during pollination can cause similar problems.

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