Sweet Corn: It’s not a Sucker, it’s a Tiller!

“Dear Hort Talk,

I’ve got suckers on my corn.  All around the stalk they keep coming up.  What can I do?




Dear George,

Thank you for your question regarding your sweet corn.

First of all, the “suckers” you are seeing are actually a structure called a tiller, which is a common secondary shoot that is found in grass family members.  Tillers are basically branches that develop from axillary buds at the lower five to seven stalk nodes of a corn plant. Tillers are morphologically identical to the main stalk and are capable of forming their own root system, nodes, internodes, leaves, ears, and tassels.

(ASIDE:  Suckers do exist on corn.  They are the short ears that form in addition to the regular sized ears.  Usually you will have a harvest of 1-2 ears per stalk and then a few days later may have a harvest of 1-2 sucker ears per stalk.  Certain varieties are more prone to sucker development.  Also, the healthier the plant, the more energy it has to put into ear development.  More energy, more ears.)

Similar axillary buds at nodes higher up on the main stalk initiate ear shoots rather than tillers. Ear shoots differ morphologically from tillers in that internode elongation (within the ear shank) is less, leaves (husk) are shorter, and the stalk (ear shank) terminates in an ear (female inflorescence) rather than a tassel (male inflorescence). Sometimes, however, a tiller becomes “confused” during its development and generates a terminal inflorescence that is partially male and female (aka “tassel-ear”).

Most agronomists agree that tiller development in field corn represents a signal that growing conditions are quite favorable, with ample available levels of nutrients, water, or sunlight. Such favorable growing conditions may exist simply due to favorable weather conditions or because the field’s plant population is low relative to the yield potential of the field. With favorable growing conditions, the corn plant has ample energy and nutrients to “invest” in tiller development. Some hybrids are also genetically prone to developing tillers, even at adapted plant populations. Tillers may compete somewhat with the main stalks, but given their usual late developmental start they usually lose out in the competition for water, nutrients, and light.

One or more tillers commonly form if the main stalk is injured or killed by hail, frost, insects, wind, tractor tires, little kids’ feet, deer hooves, etc. early in the season. If the damage occurs early enough in the growing season, tillers may actually develop harvestable ears. Late developing tillers, however, usually don’t have enough time to develop ears that mature before a killing fall frost.

As a rule, the net effect of tiller development in an undamaged field is neutral. Most recent research suggests that removal of tillers has little, if any, effect on corn grain yield. Usually, the main stalk will “outcompete” the tillers and the tillers eventually wither away. Tiller development in a field that was damaged or simply planted too thin MAY result in harvestable ears and thus contribute to grain yield.

I hope this infromation helps you out.  If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask.


© Mertie Mae Botanics LLC and Horticulture Talk!, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mertie Mae Botanics LLC and Horticulture Talk! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


2 thoughts on “Sweet Corn: It’s not a Sucker, it’s a Tiller!

  1. Pingback: Your Questions About Gardening | gardenerscardiff.co.uk

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