Gary Sycamore often exhibits beautifully arranged baskets of vegetables, fruits and flowers at the local horticultural shows, but this year one particular plant caught my eye.

The veg in question at this year’s Muswell Hill Autumn Show (16/9/23) was a corn cob, but instead of the familiar yellow seeds and green leaves, this one had red seeds glowing inside maroon dark leaves.

Its name, said Gary, is Indian Corn. It looked like the startlingly varied corn cobs shown at the British Museum in its 2021 exhibition, Peru which brought together, in a moving, eye-opening way, Andean landscape, crops, art and history.Ham & High: Indian corn is an unusual variation on the sweetcorn we are used to but is still edibleIndian corn is an unusual variation on the sweetcorn we are used to but is still edible (Image: Ruth Pavey)

Gary is always busy, growing a great variety of stuff on his Shepherds Hill allotment, sometimes for flower shows but more often for his produce stall at the Ally Pally Farmers’ Market on Sundays.

He runs it in support of the horticultural charity, the Harington Scheme, so successfully that he will soon be able to give them well over £6000 at the end of this growing season. So I was conscious about taking up his time, but also aware that plants change quickly, that I’d better get on and see the Indian Corn before it went over. 

What a fantastic-looking plant. Gary was a little vague about where he gets the seed, except that he now keeps some from year to year, which made his giving me a cob all the more generous. I only ate some (delicious, less sweet than more recent varieties) in order to keep some kernels for next year.

My late Highgate Allotments neighbour, Margaret Jarvie, was from Iowa, so always grew corn out of loyalty. Some years it worked, often it did not, so we will have to see if I get any Indian Corn.Ham & High: Sweetcorn or maize was created by ancient growers in Southern Mexico by mixing two plants togetherSweetcorn or maize was created by ancient growers in Southern Mexico by mixing two plants together

Sweetcorn, as I have now read, should more accurately be called maize. How its admirable, ancient growers in Southern Mexico persuaded it to come into being by mixing its wild version with its nearest grassy botanical relative, Zea mays mexicana, is a matter of much research and debate.

It happened perhaps 9000 years ago and involved centuries of patience and ingenuity. Neither of the wild parent plants bore seeds that would feed more than a mouse, so the wonder is that it was thought worth it, but then turned out to be such a winner.

Another wonder, shown in the Peru exhibition, is how varied are the older versions of potato, some unrecognizable as potatoes to those used only to King Edwards, Arran Pilot or Charlotte. Truly, there is more to learn about plants than anyone could ever manage, in one or many lifetimes.


Plant spring bulbs, the more you bother to do now, the happier you’ll be in spring.

Fewer insects around, so start feeding the birds.

Cut back straggling stems of rose, jasmine, ivy, etc., that have spent the summer getting out of hand. But don’t overdo it – small birds love cover.