AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – A shocking sight is an understatement. What dark monster is taking over the corn? According to Alabama Extension Plant Pathologist Austin Hagan, these large, grey and black tumor-like growths are referred to as corn smut.
As a result of the smut fungus, Ustilago maydis, corn smut is a fungal disease common on ears of corn. The fungus grows beyond the shuck and is noticeable on the ears as the corn continues to mature.
“While this disease is common in Alabama corn, the numbers of ears colonized and damaged in any cornfield is very low,” Hagan said.
Although it may be uncommon, the question remains: is it preventable?
Currently, there are no specific controls for corn smut. However, the damage is often associated with the feeding of high populations of stinkbugs.
As a result, the best way to avoid the disease is to use timely insecticide applications to control the stinkbugs.
“Recommendations for insecticide applications are reliant on the results of scouting corn,” Hagan said. “If stinkbug populations are above the threshold where they are likely to damage the corn, then it is best to use an insecticide.”
A Fungal Delicacy
As repulsive as they may appear, corn smut galls, otherwise known as huitlacoche or Mexican truffles, are a delicacy in Mexican cuisine. The cooking and preparation is similar to cooking mushrooms.
In Mexico, they traditionally sauté the smut galls with onion and garlic. Then, they fold them together into quesadillas or tamales.
“As the galls cook, they undergo a transformation from soft-blue-gray kernels to a rich, black umami-laden jam,” Hagan said.
Smut galls are ready for eating when they are light gray and have a texture similar to a ripe pear. Contrastingly, overripe galls are dry and powdery due to the formation of a black mass of fungal spores. When smut are overripe, they are inedible.
Whether a corn smut enthusiast or disappointed producer, the fungus is sure to shock and awe. For more information on corn smut, visit the Alabama Extension website, www.aces.edu.