Corkscrewed Corn Seedlings
RL (Bob) Nielsen, Extension Agronomist, Purdue University
Successful stand establishment of a corn crop relies on many factors, including the successful emergence of the seedlings. Seedling emergence occurs as a result of elongation of the mesocotyl that elevates the coleoptile or “spike” toward the soil surface. If successful, the appearance of the coleoptile at or near the soil surface is synchronized with the emergence of the first true leaf from inside the coleoptile.
The mesocotyl is the white tubular stem-like plant part located between the kernel and the base of the coleoptile. Technically, the mesocotyl is the first true stem internode of the young corn seedling. As the coleoptile nears the soil surface, exposure to the red wavelengths of solar radiation causes a change in the supply of one or more growth hormones from the coleoptile to the mesocotyl tissue and mesocotyl elongation comes to a halt (Vanderhoef & Briggs, 1978). If mesocotyl elongation and/or coleoptile emergence are compromised, the emergence of the leaves from the coleoptile may occur underground and remain trapped by the soil.
Reports of leafing out underground in 2012, the year of record early planting, are beginning to accumulate now that growers are beginning to walk their early-planted fields. Such "leafing out underground" is obviously viewed with great consternation by growers who were hopeful for perfect emergence of their crop. Obviously, emergence failure directly impacts effective plant population; one of the major yield components of corn. The extent of the emergence failure in affected fields appears to range from about 5 to 20 percent of the planted population. The magnitude of the effect on grain yield will depend on the initial seeding rate, the severity of the problem, and growing conditions the remainder of the season. Very few affected fields, however, likely merit a decision to replant.
Failure to emerge successfully can be caused by failure of the mesocotyl to successfully elongate and/or by soil restrictions that hinder successful penetration of the soil by the coleoptile. In extreme cases, elongation of the mesocotyl fails miserably, resulting literally in corkscrewed fiascos. Often, more than one of the following causal factors exist in a problem field and usually interact with each other to amplify the problem.
For more information on this curious problem, see my lengthier article online at King Corn.