Cocke’s prolific is an heirloom corn variety (Zea mays) named for General John Hartwell Cocke, who developed it in Virginia in the 1820s. Because of its high starch content and flinty texture, Cocke’s prolific was viewed as a particularly nutritious, wholesome variety. (Although a dent corn, not a flint corn, the kernels of Cocke’s prolific have a hard or “flinty” outer layer.) Its was a popular milling corn (often made into cornbread or grits, to which it imparted a pearly translucence) as well as an excellent forage corn: The alacrity with which livestock devoured it made Cocke’s prolific the preferred field corn of the Virginia Piedmont by the mid-19th century—indeed, it was known as Virginia field corn until the 1880s. As a devotee of the temperance movement, Cocke discouraged the use of his corn for whiskey production. “Prolific” refers to the fact that this variety produces multiple ears per stalk, and Cocke’s was the first commercially important prolific corn in the United States. By the end of the 1800s, Cocke’s prolific corn was planted throughout the Southern US, from Virginia to Alabama and Mississippi. It remained an important commercial variety, and appeared regularly in seed catalogues, through the 1920s and ‘30s.
Cocke’s prolific is a dent corn with broad, flat, slightly creased, whitish-gray kernels. It typically takes 120-133 days to mature. In the early days of this variety’s history, its stalks were not particularly tall or strong, but a century of expert seed selection improved this defect. Each stalk yields at least two to four ears, though it is possible to get up to seven ears per stalk if the plants are given enough space. The mature ears range from 12 to 15 inches in length and have ten to 12 rows of kernels (with ten predominating in the oldest strains). Yields range from 50-105 bushels per acre (equivalent to about 4.6-6.6 metric tonnes per hectare), depending on soil fertility and spacing. Cocke’s prolific corn does well in polycrop schemes (e.g. planted with beans), especially in low-lying areas with good soil moisture.
In the mid-1900s, Cocke’s prolific was gradually abandoned in favor of less flinty varieties, and eventually it almost completely disappeared. By 2017, there was only one known grower of this variety: a 95-year-old farmer from South Carolina whose family started growing Cocke’s prolific in the 1930s. Fortunately, through the efforts of one of this farmer’s friends, Cocke’s prolific has made its way to a few seedsmen and farmers. Today it is grown in a handful of locations in the Eastern and Southern US, including at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, which is particularly fitting given that Jefferson was a friend and agricultural associate of General Cocke. Some of the current growers of Cocke’s prolific report that it has a germination rate of 100% and that it grows faster and taller than many modern hybrid varieties. Given its important place in the history of American agriculture, it is vital that Cocke’s prolific corn continues to be grown and appreciated.