Issues with purple coloration of corn plants sometimes occur about mid-August or later. It is perhaps more common for purple coloration in corn to occur early in the season, often a result of a phosphorus deficiency or cold temperature stress.
When purple coloration occurs later in the season on the leaf, stem, husk, silk, or anther tissues, this can be related to the production and accumulation of a pigment called anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is derived from another pigment, “anthocyanidin,” that is comprised of a sugar-like molecule. The accumulation of anthocyanin occurs when the plant is not capable of translocating sugars to different plant organs.
Source (leaves):Sink (grains) Imbalance Issue
The late-season purple coloration phenomenon takes place when photosynthetically active tissues of the plants are acting as sources of sugars, while the sinks (ears – when present) are not utilizing sugars as fast as the sugars are being produced. When this happens, the flow of sugars within the plants is disrupted and the sugars can accumulate in various areas of the plants, causing an unusual purple coloration. This could be a result of several different factors:
Environment-by-genetic interaction: There may be a specific hybrid response to environmental conditions, such as cool nights followed by sunny days, causing a buildup of sugars. The presence or absence of the genes associated with the production of anthocyanin is specific to certain hybrids.
Restricted root development: Restrictions in root growth, which may be due to several different factors -- such as drought stress, saturated soils, soil compaction, cool temperatures, herbicide injury, insect feeding, or shallow planting -- may cause a reduced demand for sugars, thus increasing purple coloration. This situation is more likely to occur early in the vegetative stages.
Poor ear development or barren plants: Ear development may be impaired by any number of factors (biotic and abiotic stresses), causing a disruption in the demand for sugars from photosynthesis. Barren plants, when ears are not present, tend to show this purpling in leaves and stem organs. This can occur at almost any reproductive stage of the crop season.
Regardless of the specific factor that causes anthocyanin accumulation, the production of the purple coloration is associated with some kind of restriction in the utilization of carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis.
Purple coloration can occur on the stems or leaves (Figure 1). Purple coloration can also be seen in the reproductive structures such as husk, silk, and anther tissues (Figure 2).
With corn now nearing maturation, the crop is advancing into the grain-fill period and reaching the end of its life cycle. As this process continues, water and nitrogen uptake by the roots will be decreasing until the end of the season. The root system has a very high demand for sugars at its peak of activity. As it decreases in physiological activity, sugars may accumulate in the lower sections of the stem (Figures 3 and 4).
Purple coloration problems have also been observed in situations with multiple ears, without indication of problems in ear size or grain set, and in plants located near field borders with sufficient soil-air resources. This indicates that the plant has an imbalance between sugar accumulation and allocation (Figure 4).
Figure 1. Purple color on stem and leaves of corn plants during the vegetative period (five-leaf stage), due to buildup of anthocyanin. Photo by Ignacio Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 2. Purple color on leaves for corn plants during the reproductive period. Photo by Ignacio Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 3. Darker purple color on the lower stem section of corn plants, due to buildup of anthocyanin. Photo by Doug Shoup, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 4. Purple color on the lower section of the stem on plants around milk stage (R3, reproductive stage) with the presence of multiple ears. Photo by Ignacio Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.
In summary, purpling is an indication of a surplus of photosynthetic sugars, generally promoted by imbalance between source:sink (e.g., poor kernel set). Either way, purple coloration is often a warning sign, and fields should be scouted for these signs.
Ignacio Ciampitti, Crop Production and Cropping Systems Specialist
Doug Shoup, Southeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist