Popcorn is a little gift from nature. If grown and handled properly, popcorn will pop when heat is added.
Native Americans were expert farmers who knew just when to plant crops based on their geographical location. In warmer climates, corn was planted in late winter to avoid the hot temperatures and sun that might cause damage to the small plants. In cooler climates, Native Americans planted corn seeds later in the year.
Today's farmers wait to plant until the soil has warmed up in the spring and the danger of frost is past. The use of computers, weather data and agricultural reports makes finding the perfect planting time much easier.
After the popcorn seeds are planted, the soil's moisture begins to seep through the outer shell, or pericarp.
As the seeds begin to swell, the pericarp explodes, and the germ produces a tiny leaf and root system.
With the right combination of sun, warm temperatures, nutrients and moisture, a root system takes hold in the soil.
Approximately ten days after planting, the tiny plant breaks through the soil's surface. Under the appropriate conditions, the plant grows very quickly – up to an inch or more a day.
Other Parts of the Corn Plant
The husk is the leafy covering that protects the kernels as they grow.
About halfway up the plant, these silk-covered husks begin to sprout. Each silk strand has an egg at the base of the stalk. The egg and silk make up the female part of the plant. Each silk strand represents a potential kernel.
The male part of the plant consists of the pollen grains that are released from the tassels. The pollen floats in the air and is captured by the hairs on the silk, where it then fertilizes the egg. Each strand of fertilized silk develops into a single kernel.
The kernel is the unpopped corn seed. Popcorn kernels are divided into two groups, pearl or rice, depending on their shape.
Inside the protective husk, the tiny kernels grow on the cob. Usually around ten weeks later, there is a fully-developed ear of corn. Harvest time is very critical. If popcorn is removed from the field too early or too late, it may not pop as it should. Popcorn is usually removed from the field in the fall.
So how do those ears of corn in the fields end up in a bag in your microwave? Popcorn processing has four main steps:
The kernels are sorted according to size.
The kernels are passed through a separator, which rejects the ones that are underdeveloped or damaged.
The popcorn is then cleaned with forced air and brushes.
Finally, the popcorn is packaged and shipped to thousands of grocery stores and movie theaters.