While scouting fields this time of year it is common to find a few strange looking ears. Corn is a monecious plant, which means it has separate male (the tassel) and female (the ear) flowers. In some cases, both male and female structures form as a combination in the same plant structure.
“Tassel-ears” often form on the tillers or “suckers” of a corn plant. Corn experts and agronomists believe that tassel ears are the result of some kind of environmental occurrence, however, the exact event that causes their development is unknown. The number of kernels that form on the tassel ear are limited. Without a husk to protect them, these kernels are exposed to environmental conditions and are usually damaged by the time harvest occurs.
According to Bob Nielsen from Purdue University, “The male and female reproductive organs of a corn plant are contained in physically separate unisexual flowers (a flowering habit called “monoecious” for you trivia fans.) The tassel represents the male flower on a corn plant, while the ear shoots represent the female flowers. Interestingly, both reproductive structures initiate as perfect (bisexual) flowers, containing both male and female reproductive structures. During the normal course of development, the female components (gynoecia) of the tassel and the male components (stamens) of the ear shoots abort, resulting in the unisexual flowers we come to expect.
“Once in a while, the normal development of the tassel alters such that it becomes partly or mostly female reproductive structures, often resulting in actual kernel development. The physiological basis for the survival of the female floral parts on the tassel is likely hormonally-driven, but the environmental “trigger” that alters the hormonal balance is not known.
“A “tassel-ear” is an odd-looking affair and is found most commonly on tillers or “suckers” of a corn plant along the edges of a field or in otherwise thinly populated areas of a field. It is very uncommon to find tassel-ears that develop on the main stalk of a corn plant.”