Getting Rid of Smut; the Garden Variety

August 1, 2007

I received the following question this week from Richard inquiring into ways to control and eliminate smut on his sweet corn:

“About half of my sweet corn patch is heavily infected with smut. I have been reading about solarizing to kill weeds. Would it work against smut?”

Corn Smut: Common but Usually not a Big Problem

I don’t grow corn in my backyard garden but any gardeners that do are very likely to encounter at least an occasional deformed and mutant ear of corn with silvery grey growths that eventually erupt into black, powdery, spore masses. If you’ve never seen smut before here’s a g-rated link to a couple photos of corn smut.

The dust-like spores that are released spread far and wide on the wind and take up residence in the soil where they over winter and strike future corn plantings. Common smut can also form on the leaves, stalks, or even tassels of corn plants, and the spores can also be spread through infected plant waste that is left in the garden.

If your corn is infected it will be rather obvious as these are very large and unnatural looking growths! Fortunately, as ugly as it is, corn smut is normally not a major problem for the home gardener. That’s because it’s usually not too widespread and will only form on a random ear of corn or two spread throughout the patch.

Controlling Corn Smut in the Garden

I’m not sure why Richard’s smut outbreak is so heavy. Are there farmers in the area growing large acreages of corn that is infected with smut? Do you rotate your corn and plant it in different sections of the garden each year? Have you ever allowed the smut to mature and form spores in the past?

Regarding the question of solarizing the soil as a method of controlling corn smut, I don’t think that it would be worth the effort because the spores are everywhere and transmitted so easily. Even if solarizing could kill any spores that were present in the garden, it would be a very short time until new spores were introduced.

A better way of controlling corn smut is to simply keep an eye out for its appearance and growth in your vegetable garden. At the first sign of any mutations remove the affected plant and dispose of it before the smut has a chance to mature, form spores, and spread. It’s a good idea to encourage your neighbors to do the same.

Common corn smut is more prevalent during hot weather and its growth seems to be retarded when the temperatures are cooler. You can also reduce the likelihood of smut in your corn crop by planting certain resistant varieties. Unfortunately, many of the heirloom and open pollinated varieties of corn are more susceptible to smut.

A Little Smut Never Killed Anyone!

But before you run off and try to eliminate corn smut from the face of the earth, I have to tell you that there may actually be a market for the stuff! I personally would not eat it, and don’t recommend you adding it to your diet, but in some circles corn smut is considered a tasty delicacy.

There are even farmers who are experimenting with ways to encourage the growth of smut in their fields (probably some of Richard’s neighbors) in order to take advantage and profit from the increasing demand for this “food.”

When classified as an edible delight rather than a garden plague, corn smut goes by the more exotic sounding names of Huitlacoche, Cuitacoche, or Mexican Truffle. It is more popular as a food within the Mexican culture, and in some places you can even find it in cans on the grocery store shelves.

This article has been submitted as part of the Weekend Herb Blogging Group for the week of August 5, 2007. No need to forward any recipes here… eating edible weeds and growing gourmet mushrooms is one thing, but I’ll have to pass on the Huitlacoche.

I always wonder about foods like this and how they were discovered. I mean did someone actually say to themselves: “Hmmm, you know that corn smut is some awful, stinky, disgusting looking stuff, but you know what, it could have an interesting texture or flavor… I think I’ll try some when no one is looking…. Mmmm, Yumm!!! HONEY… GUESS WHAT!”





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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kalyn August 5, 2007 at 12:24 pm

Now this is a topic no one has ever written about! I’ve never grown corn much, my garden is too small. I’m not sure corn smut is something I’d want to try to learn to like, but it’s interesting to hear it can be eaten.

Kenny Point August 5, 2007 at 12:49 pm

Corn would take up too much space in my garden as well. When it comes to corn smut “can be eaten” is much different than “will be eaten,” I’ll just add this one to my list of survival or “in case of emergency” only foods.

Beverly August 9, 2007 at 10:37 pm

Huitlacoche–corn smut–is a delicacy in some circles. After all, it’s just a variation on a mushroom. The Aztecs loved it.

I would love to try it, but then, I love corn, too.

Eric Harris September 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I have allowed crab and other type grasses to over run my vegetable patch. Now that I haved filled 3 garbage bags with the grass I see that the ground is covered with their seeds. My bad knees will not permit me to do the stooping needed to pull emerging grass from these seeds. I do not want to spray wih a commecial herbicide. But I am thinking of burning these seeds with a suitable Propane blowtorch. Is this a viable tactic?

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