Heirloom Corn Varieties
Find an abundance of information on heirloom corn varieties, from planting and seed saving to harvesting and preparing.
July 18, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom corn varieties was taken from chapter 14, “Corn.”
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom corn varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Corn
Above: Sehapsing or Oklahoma Delaware Blue Corn is a dark blue-black corn when mature, but it can also be harvested as a sweet corn when young.
Corn is doubtless our most studied, our most tinkered with, and, some would claim, our most debased of all New World vegetables. Its history is long and complex, and the literature of corn is immense. Betty Fussell’s recent Story of Corn (1992) is a good introduction to how corn evolved from a Native American food of deeply sacred character into the sugar-enhanced Coca Cola corns of today. The late Sophie Goe’s America’s First Cuisines (1994) traces this story back to its roots in Mexico and Peru. The American industrialization of corn, the genetic revolution that has produced a whole new generation of corn varieties so unlike the robust corns of the past, has brought about fundamental changes in American agriculture that represent the very antithesis of what genetic diversity and seed saving is about. The irony of it all is that corn, the ancient benefactor of the Indians, a living spiritual dimension of their culture and its symbiotic relationship with the land, has become one of the world’s cash crops. Because of this it is now inextricably enmeshed in political corruption and rapacious environmental destruction. There is no vegetable that closes the ranks among seed savers and proponents of sustainable agriculture more effectively than corn.
Unfortunately, corn is not an easy plant to preserve as an heirloom vegetable. It originated as a mutation and cannot survive in the wild. Therefore, its existence is wholly dependent on the intervention of man to ensure that it can pollinate and produce seed. The Indians were keenly aware of this and treated corn with a religious dedication found in no other cultures. Furthermore, their attitude toward corn was colored by a desire not to increase its productivity but to preserve its sacred character, for in their eyes it had human qualities. The purity of seed color and of types of corn were paramount, for they had metaphysical meanings in Native American religion. For this reason, the Indian was also one of the most sophisticated savers of seed, able to accomplish through simple observation and without scientific training what whites must learn through years of university education. The American Indians were plant geneticists before the term was invented.
The Indians appear to have categorized their corns by intended use: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so forth. Each corn had its adjunct ceremonies and festive recipes. We have inherited some of these corns from native peoples, and we have selectively borrowed some of their dialect names (such as flint) for types of corn, but we use them in much different ways. The profundity of the changes that occurred as the cultivation of corn shifted from the Indian to the white man is acutely evident in Porter A. Browne’s Essay on Indian Corn (1837), which cataloged thirty-five of the most commonly raised varieties at the time. Very few were pure Indian sorts, and only a couple are known today; the rest are probably extinct.
Browne organized his corns by color. Among the yellows he listed King Philip Corn, which is still available. Under white corn, he mentioned Smith’s Early White and Mandan, in this case a sweet corn, not the Mandan corn familiar to seed savers today. His list of red corns was the largest, including Guinea Corn, William Cobbett’s Corn, Dutton Flint, and a curious Mexican corn “found in a mummy.” Perhaps the Mexican corn released in the 1860s by Massachusetts seedsman James J. H. Gregory attempted by virtue of its provocative name to cash in on a similar implied ancient authenticity, like the Anastazi bean of today.
Horticulturists divide corn differently than did either the Indians or the early corn specialists like Browne. All of the cultivated varieties belong to the same species and therefore readily cross with one another. In fact, corn is one of the easiest of all garden vegetables to cross, since it relies on windblown pollen for fertilization, and even the slightest puff of air can carry pollen a great distance. This promiscuity results in many varieties that fall between the five or six recognized types generally accepted by horticulturists. Of the garden varieties, these include popcorn (van praecox), dent corn (var. indentata), flint corn (var. indurate), soft corn, and sweet corn (van rugosa). If this discussion is shifted to Mexico, everything is turned topsy-turvy by the huge number of corns that evolved there. Their complicated pedigrees were analyzed in Paul Mangelsdorf’s Corn (1974), one of the breakthrough studies on the origins of this plant.
Popcorn is one of the oldest and hardiest of all the types and can be grown where many other corns do not thrive. It can be planted earlier in the spring than other varieties, but of course it will cross easily with any type of corn planted near it. Since popcorn pops best when the kernels are over a year old, this is a corn that must be allowed to ripen on the stalk, then properly dried indoors before storing in containers free of insects and moisture. Freezing it immediately before it is popped will increase the rate of popping. I have included two old varieties in my selection that not only pop beautifully but have a flavor not found in modern commercial varieties.
Dent corns are characterized by a dent or crease in the kernel, hence the Indian name “she-corn.” This type of corn is starchy and is generally used for roasting, corn bread, and hominy. It is a type best acclimated to the South and Southwest, where it seems to have developed the greatest number of varieties. Flint corns are the northern counterpart to this type. The kernels contain a high percentage of opaline, a mineral that gives the corn its gritty or “flinty” texture when ground. Flint corns are normally used for grits and hominy, as are many field corns.
Flour corns or soft corns are characterized by a kernel that is mostly starch when ripe, and therefore lends itself to grinding for flour. All North American Indians involved in agriculture maintained flour corns of one kind or another. Even though they are believed to have had a tropical origin, corns with this genetic feature were among the first to be dispersed by the Indians to all parts of our continent. The Tuscarora corn on my list is one of the classic Eastern corns of this type.
The Indians of North America distinguished between two types of sweet corn, the “green” or unripe corn of most corn types when they are in the so-called “milky” stage, and a corn with heavily wrinkled kernels that is naturally sweet by genotype. The sweet corn of white culture is this latter type. Historically, true sweet corn was a latecomer, reaching what is now the United States in the 1300s. It originated in Peru, where it is still used to make chicha, a fermented drink made in pre-Columbian times. Sweet corn derives its sweetness from a recessive gene, a mutation that has made it defective in converting sugar to starch. This characteristic was utilized by Native Americans for storing slow-ripening late-season varieties as “fresh” corn during part of the winter or for caramelizing the corn while in the husk over hot coals. This slow drying process resulted in a sweet-tasting dry corn that could be eaten as a snack or used in stews and vegetable mixtures.
According to anthropologist Helen Rountree (1990, 52), the Powhatans of Virginia made a corn-and-bean dish called pausarowmena that served as a staple dish during the winter. In the late summer, “green” corn or a variety of sweet corn was harvested and roasted in the husk over hot coals until dry and slightly caramelized, very much in taste and texture like the present-day dry sweet corn of the Pennsylvania Dutch. This dry sweet corn was stored in middens and reconstituted as needed with water. It was stewed with two types of beans, a large pole variety and a small bush bean. This combination of dried sweet corn and two distinct types of beans constituted the real “succotash” of the Powhatans and related peoples in the Middle Atlantic region.
All open-pollinated corn must be planted differently from hybrids. For best results, plant the seed in blocks or squares 5 to 6 rows wide. John Brown, a farmer who lived on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire and who developed the variety known as King Philip Corn, noted in The Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 175–76) that farmers in his region were still planting corn “the old way” in rows 4 feet apart in hills 3 feet from one another, four to six plants per hill. This method works well for heirloom varieties and will ensure good pollination with room between the hills for squash. Pole beans may be planted among the clumps of corn and allowed to climb up the stalks.
Among the Indians in the East, corn seed was generally treated in an herbal tea before it was planted. F. W. Waugh described some of these decoctions in Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation (1916, 18–20). After soaking in the tea, the corn was left wet in a basket so that it would sprout a little before planting. This treatment was thought to protect the corn, and may in fact have produced an odor to camouflage it from birds and insects. It had the additional benefit of separating viable seed from weak ones and avoiding seed that might otherwise rot in the ground.
For seed-saving purposes, there must be 200 seed-producing ears in the garden. Ripe, dry seed corn is taken from 25 to 50 of the very best ears and mixed together to ensure genetic diversity. Kernels must be hand-sorted for color and all of the best characteristics of the variety. Because it is a mutant, corn propagated from a small gene pool will undergo inbreeding depression quickly and irreversibly, just as humans do when they breed with close kin. This is the reason for the numbers given above. Geneticists have determined that they represent the critical mass in the gene pool for continued diversity and the healthy survival of the corn variety. There is no way to get around this; saving seed for corn requires space because 200 ears of corn translates into at least 100 plants arranged in 25 hills if planted the old way. Furthermore, seed corn must be allowed to ripen on the plants, then allowed to dry thoroughly before being sorted for storage. Sweet corns will remain viable for three years; the others five to ten years, sometimes longer. Animals can be a serious threat to a seed-saving program, so it is always advisable to overplant with a certain margin of loss in mind. However, the gardener need not be helpless before the ravages of raccoons, nature’s most expert corn thieves.
Warding Off Unwanted Pests
Ears of corn can be protected from raccoons and squirrels by wrapping the ears with 3/4-inch-wide packing tape, the sort with reinforced webbing of fiberglass or plastic. Circle the ear with the tape above where it is attached to the stalk, then gird the ear about 2 inches below the tip. Allow 24 inches of tape per ear, but do not wrap the tape so tightly that the corn cannot expand properly in the husk. The tape will keep the animals from pulling the ears off the stalks, and since the tape is reinforced, raccoons and squirrels cannot properly chew through it. It also foils crows.
If crows prove to be a special nuisance, the Farmer’s Almanac for 1864 had this effective advice: “Soak a few quarts of dried corn in whiskey, and scatter it over the fields for the crows. After partaking one such meal and getting pretty thoroughly corned, they will never return to it again.” I would use the brand of corn whiskey called Rebel Yell. It seems to fit the remedy and evoke some of the sounds I now associate with the birds at the height of their raucous inebriation. Incidentally, it works.
Heirloom Corn Varieties
'Black Mexican' Corn
Also known as Black Sugar and Slate Sweet, this famous sweet corn was introduced in 1864 by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, under the name Mexican Sweet Corn. It appeared at a time when Gregory was also introducing his Mammoth Chihuahua Tomato and a number of vegetables originating from New Mexico. The seedsman always remained coy about the true origin of his corn, but horticulturists soon ascertained that it was a hybrid created largely from North American varieties.
A commentary on the corn in the American Garden (1888, 299) revealed that an accidental cross between the Blue Squaw Corn of the Dakotas and a common sweet corn produced a hybrid similar to Black Mexican. This suggested that Gregory had crossed a blue soft (flour) corn with a variety similar to the white sweet corn brought back from General Sullivan’s campaign against the Iroquois in 1779. But there are also traces of flint corn in his hybrid, which may point in the direction of the Mexican White Flint Corn distributed to farmers by the United States Patent Office in 1854. A three-way cross is possible. Whatever the case, the origin of Gregory’s Black Mexican was more upstate New York than south of the border.
Origin aside, Gregory’s corn was an instant hit, at least in New England where short-season sweet corns had been difficult to come by. His corn is also one of the most popular of all heirloom sweet corns raised today. It matures in 75 to 80 days, so home gardeners do not have to wait half the summer for a crop. In addition to this, the plants themselves are small and well adapted to gardens with limited space. The stalks are about 6 feet tall and particularly remarkable for their pale green leaves and silks. The cobs measure 6 to 8 inches and are cylindrical in shape, about 1½ inches in diameter. The cob is white, with eight rows of slate-black kernels.
The corn is normally harvested a few days before it begins to change color from white to purple. At this stage it is eaten as a sweet corn. Once the kernels change to deep blue or black, the sugars change to starch and the kernels become tough. The ripe dry corn can be used for flour corn or for porridge (mush).
'Country Gentleman' (Shoepeg) Corn
This popular variety of sweet corn was introduced in 1891 by Peter Henderson & Company of New York. It is still grown commercially for canneries and is well suited for freezing. Thus, of all the heirloom corns on my list, this is one that is most likely to be found in supermarkets in the frozen foods or canned goods section. Many of my readers may have eaten it without knowing it.
Country Gentleman, named for the famous nineteenth-century American agricultural magazine, was created as a cross between Ne Plus Ultra, a variety introduced in 1882, and Stowell’s Evergreen, yielding a larger ear than either parent yet retaining the “shoepeg”-shaped kernels of Ne Plus Ultra. The stalks of Country Gentleman are 6 to 7 feet tall, with 8-inch ears. The long, narrow white kernels are arranged not in rows but in an irregular, tightly packed zigzag pattern, one of the distinctive characteristics of this variety. The corn ripens in 90 to 100 days with a flavor that is rich, sweet, and milky.
While this corn is widely used in canning and freezing, it is delightful, indeed at its best, when fresh. Its milkiness recommended it to the creamed corn recipes once so popular with Victorian cooks, but it was equally delicious in summer pies. The following recipe appeared in an article called “New Ways to Serve Corn” in Table Talk (1897, 284), a household magazine published in Philadelphia under the editorship of cookbook author Sarah Tyson Rorer. In the recipe, “butter the size of a walnut” means 2 tablespoons.
One cupful of grated corn, one half of a cupful of milk, salt and cayenne to taste, butter the size of a walnut, one rounded tablespoonful of cornstarch, yolks of two eggs. Bake with an under crust only, and when done cover with a meringue made from the whites of the two eggs, to which add a pinch of salt and also one of cream of tartar; no sugar. Brown delicately.
'Gourd Seed' Corn (Texas Strain)
Gourd seed dent corns were cultivated by Native American peoples as a flour corn, and because of their productivity, they are still best suited to this use. There is considerable evidence that both white and yellow varieties were grown in southern Virginia, the Carolinas, and other parts of the Upper South at the time of the first white settlements in that region. In spite of the fact that it is considered a southern corn, gourd seed varieties were also known to the Iroquois, who cultivated them in the mild microclimates along the Finger Lakes and in the Genesee Valley of western New York.
Porter Browne mentioned both the yellow and the white gourd seed corns in his Essay on Indian Corn, and noted that there were seven subvarieties of the yellow. There were probably many subvarieties of the white as well, although most of these are now extinct. He described the true yellow type as having 24 rows to a cob, while the white might have as many as 36. There was also a hybrid variety created by crossing Sioux (a yellow flint type) with the Yellow Gourd Seed, thus yielding a cob with 16 rows. Maryland White Gourd Seed, the most popular white variety in the late nineteenth century, also had 16 rows of kernels on its cobs, evidence that it too was probably the product of an early cross. Many of the old gourd seed varieties were crossed with northern corns so that they could be grown outside the South.
Although it was popular with farmers as a feed grain, particularly for poultry, references to gourd seed corn are spotty. A farmer near Sandusky, Ohio, described in The Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 178) how he had been growing gourd seed corn the old way by planting it in hills 4 feet apart, but then raised productivity dramatically by shifting to drill planting. One of the leading promoters of gourd seed corn, especially the Maryland White Gourd Seed, was seedsman George A. Dietz of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. His advertisements can be found in the American Agriculturist throughout the 1870s. Due to their high yields, as much as 255 bushels per acre, gourd seed corns continued to be cultivated until the advent of hybrids. Between 1940 and the present, many of the old varieties became extinct, but because of the corn’s resistance to a number of diseases, there has been renewed interest in it recently.
A strain of Maryland White Gourd Seed, now called Texas Gourd Seed, was discovered in Texas and reintroduced commercially by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in 1987. It had been taken to Texas by German farmers from the Upper South in the late nineteenth century and retains many of the characteristics of the original white variety. This is the gourd seed corn generally grown among seed savers. The plants are about 8 feet tall, with two ears per stalk. The thin, “horse tooth” or gourd seed — shaped kernels are cream colored and arranged in 18 to 22 compact rows. It is the characteristic shape of the kernels that gives this corn its distinctive name. The corn is resistant to drought, does well in clay soils, and ripens in about 120 days. The young, unripe corn can be picked “green” and eaten like sweet corn. However, at this stage of ripeness, I think it is best grated for fritters, puddings, and pies. Of course, it makes excellent flour, equal to any masa harina from Mexico, and as a coarse meal, makes excellent cornbread.
Like other Iroquoian peoples, the Senecas have preserved a large number of ancient corn varieties, as Arthur Parker in his study on Iroquois Uses of Maize (1910, 42) has put it, “with a zeal that has in it a religious and patriotic sentiment.” Ha-Go-Wa is one of the varieties that the Senecas connect with their tribal identity, which is not surprising, since this is truly one of the oldest of their documented sorts. There is strong evidence that it was observed by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535–36, which certainly points to pre-Columbian origins. Therefore, as an heirloom corn, Seneca Hominy comes with both an ancient pedigree and a rich culinary history.
This corn is hardy and thrives in most sections of the country where summers are short, yet it also does well in the South, especially if it is planted early. Best of all, it is a medium-height corn, about 6 to 8 feet tall — perfect for small gardens — and if planted in early May, comes to tassel in early July. The corn yields two 8-inch cobs low on the stalk, and since its leaves are rather narrow, it does not shade large, leafy varieties of pumpkins or melons growing around it. Watermelons are excellent companion plants, particularly low varieties like Rattlesnake or King and Queen.
The kernels of Ha-Go-Wa are large, round, and white, often arranged irregularly as shown in the image to the right. Typical cobs should have twelve rows of kernels. Off-color kernels, such as yellow or red, which are telltale signs of crossing, should be reserved for cooking rather than for seed.
The Senecas use this corn exclusively for large hominy, small hominy (grits), and cornmeal, usually in the form of mush. The dry corn can be parched in the oven to create a variety of toasty flavors and a finer texture in the meal. The dry kernels can also be pounded to produce cracked corn (samp), an excellent quick meal, especially when cooked with beans. The very young ears or “green” corn can be eaten raw or boiled like sweet corn.
'Howling Mob' Corn
This variety was developed by C. D. Keller of Toledo, Ohio, and introduced in 1906 by W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia. Keller was interested in creating an early sweet corn to compete with the later-season sorts. Ripening in about 80 days, Howling Mob effectively filled this niche for market gardeners for many years. The name alludes to the crowds of eager buyers who are supposed to gather around when the corn appears for sale.
The plant is a vigorous grower, about 4 1/2 to 5 feet tall, with two ears per stalk. The ears measure 7 to 9 inches in length, with 12 to 14 rows of white kernels. The husk is extremely thick and is known to protect the corn from damage by the green corn worms that are normally endemic to early-season varieties. The husks are excellent for wrapping dumplings and corn breads, and for steaming fish and shellfish. Even though this variety is not old, the husks are quite well suited for making woven foot and bed mats of the sort made by native peoples centuries ago.
The origin of this corn is not presently known, although it predates 1885. Once popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch, it remained out of the public notice for many years until it was reintroduced commercially in 1988 by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a small seed company in Earlysville, Virginia. The flavor of this popcorn is unique. There are no commercial popcorns quite like it. It tastes buttered without butter, a feature that should appeal to popcorn lovers who want to reduce the fat in their diet.
The stalks of this variety are about 8 feet tall, with two ears per plant. The cobs measure from 4 to 6 inches long, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter at the base, tapering to 1 inch at the top. Each ear contains 26 to 28 rows of white kernels, which ripen in about 120 days. This and White Rice are among the most productive popcorns I have grown.
'Puhwem' ('Oklahoma Delaware White') Corn
This fine old flour corn was preserved by the late Nora Thompson Dean (“Touching Leaves Woman”), one of the former leaders of the Delaware community and well known among American Indians. The stalks of this variety are noteworthy for their height, ranging from 9 to 10 feet, some reaching as much as 15 feet. Each stalk produces two cobs with pinkish red silks about 5 feet from the ground.
Such tall corn would not normally recommend itself to kitchen gardens, but since the plants are extremely sturdy and deep rooted, they are resistant to wind damage. Therefore, the corn makes an excellent support for tall twining pole beans, such as Indiana Wild Goose or Lentil Beans. The shady space beneath the corn can be used for squash, small pumpkins, cucumbers, even small lettuces, Furthermore, Puhwem tassels middle to late August, thus it is a perfect late-season crop when planted with early and midseason varieties. Iowa seed saver Barry Haglan has grown this corn for some time and has found that it comes to crop there even later than in Pennsylvania, generally toward the end of October or early November. Based on this, I would not recommend the corn for areas north of Zone 6.
Among the Delawares, this corn was used primarily for making corn flour, which was combined with cornmeal, bean flour, or pumpkin paste to make ash cakes and dumplings. European settlers used flour corn in combination with other grain flours — such as two parts buckwheat to one part Puhwem for buckwheat cakes — or used it to make American adaptations of sponge cakes, rusks, or pound cakes. Puhwem can be used like rice flour in most baking recipes.
Although this corn was found among the Caney River Delawares in Oklahoma and preserved in the corn collection at Iowa State University, there is a reasonable likelihood that it originated in southeastern Pennsylvania, for it fits the description of an old sort known to have been cultivated by the Lenape peoples from pre-Columbian times. Swedish geographer-engineer Peter Lindström noted during his visit to the Delaware Valley in 1654–56 that the Lenape peoples living in the vicinity of the present Bordentown, New Jersey, raised a black corn and that they had grown it for many years. It is possible that he saw a variety similar to Sehsapsing, which is indeed black when fully mature. The fact that it is also a 90-day corn that thrives in Zones 6 and 7 further supports this. It happens to be one of my favorites because it is ready-made for small gardens.
The diminutive plants grow no taller than 6 feet, often shorter, with one 6-to-7-inch cob per stalk. The cobs are generally 1 1/2 feet off the ground. Yet for its small size, this is not a stingy corn; the plants sometimes send out side shoots at the base, thus forming clumps or as many as 2 to 8 stalks. From a distance, the corn presents a wild, grassy appearance. For people accustomed to seeing endless fields of genetically engineered silage corn, Sehsapsing stands apart as a spirit untamed.
Each 5-to-8-inch cob contains 8 rows of succulent white kernels, which when eaten young are much sweeter and better flavored than most commercial sweet corns sold today. As the kernels mature, they gradually turn blue, then deep purple, until finally, when they are dry and shriveled, they become ashen black. Sehsapsing is therefore a Native American relative of the sweet corn developed in the nineteenth century under the name Black Mexican.
Sehsapsing has two primary uses. As a “green” corn, it serves as sweet corn and can be used in any recipe where fresh corn is called for. Once it begins to mature, however, the sugars quickly convert to starch. Therefore, it makes an excellent flour corn, very soft but very dark gray. By itself, this color is no more off-putting than that of Hopi blue corn. Mixed with bean paste or with other wholemeal flours, the color blends in.
Like the nubbins (baby ears) of Iroquois white sweet corns, the nubbins of Sehsapsing were also pickled in vinegar by early American cooks. According to Dr. James Mease in a notice in the Gardener’s Magazine (1830, 483), the ears were considered fit for pickling “when the size of the middle finger.”
'Stowell’s Evergreen' Corn
Perhaps one of the most popular of all American heirloom corns today, this old-fashioned sweet corn is still generally available from many seed companies, although there are now several strains. Much touted as a sweet corn, Stowell’s Evergreen was not originally developed with a sultry summer picnic in mind. Nor was it given high marks when it was first introduced. The variety originated as a cross between Menomoni Flour Corn and the Iroquois Northern Sugar Corn brought back from the Sullivan expedition in 1779. This hybrid was created and first grown by Nathan Stowell of Burlington, New Jersey, a few years prior to 1849.
The corn became known nationally due to James Jay “Manure” Mapes, editor of the Working Farmer and inventor of a popular fertilizer. Mapes is considered the original booster of the corn because he enthusiastically sent out free seed samples to readers of his publication. Public reaction was mixed. The Pennsylvania Farm Journal (1853, 40) remarked sourly, “He who expects to find this article of corn as much superior to the common kinds, as the ambrosia of the gods was to the food of mortals, will lay down his cob and pick his teeth in disappointment.” In a continuing discussion of the corn on the following pages of the journal, a commentator observed, “The only drawback to be apprehended… is the danger of its crying back to the original form from which it was produced — a danger that is common, I believe, to all hybrids, until long cultivation has fixed their peculiarities.”
What saved Stowell’s Evergreen, even after disastrous trials between 1850 and 1852, was the secret buried in its name, the one strength that Stowell had intentionally bred into it in the first place. The corn could be pulled up in the fall before fully ripe, root and all, and hung upside down in a cool pantry or garret. From these semiwilted plants, fresh corn could be picked well into February, thus prolonging the fresh corn season. This storage concept was borrowed from the Iroquois, who stored their sweet corn in this manner, and this is why the corn was called “evergreen.” In the era before canning, this corn filled an important niche in the rural American diet.
Stowell’s Evergreen is now raised as a late-season sweet corn. The plants grow 7 1/2 to 8 feet tall and produce ears about 30 inches off the ground. The ears measure 7 to 8 inches long and about 2 1/4 inches in diameter, although somewhat tapering and rarely filled at the tip. There are 16 rows of white kernels on a white cob. When dry, the kernels are wrinkled and fall easily from the cob.
The precise origin of this variety of flour corn is not known. However, it is assumed to have moved north with the Tuscarora nation when it joined with the Iroquois in 1722. The Tuscarora, who have given the corn its name, came from the Upper South in what is now North Carolina. Another old name for this corn variety was Turkey Wheat, a name also used in early Virginia accounts for a similar flour corn raised by the Powhatans and other peoples from that region. It is quite possible that Tuscarora is closely related to that ancient corn. Seed savers who have raised it in the South have reported that it does well even in Louisiana. This may support claims of the Tuscarora themselves that their corn first evolved in that part of the country.
Even though Tuscarora is still extensively cultivated by the Iroquois peoples, it has never received much attention by whites. H. N. Langworthy, a farmer living in the vicinity of Rochester, New York, complained in New Genessee Farmer (1840, 8–9) that Tuscarora was an excellent corn but little known among American farmers. The reason, he suggested, was that the corn was not “heavy,” and therefore not salable to distilleries for whisky or usable as pork feed. Because the corn had little use as a commercial crop, Fearing Burr (1865, 590–91) was not enthusiastic about it.
Its primary use is still as a midseason (120-day) flour corn. The plants are 6 to 8 feet tall and produce 12-inch red cobs with 8 rows of large, marble-white kernels when ripe. The cobs taper in diameter from 2 3/4 inches at the top to 3 inches at the bottom. The young or “green” corn can be used like sweet corn. The flour from the mature kernels is snowy white and extremely soft. The mature kernels do not shrivel when dry.
Langworthy challenged the editors of the New Genessee Farmer to visit his farm, where his wife would prepare a number of dishes made with Tuscarora corn, among them johnny cakes, breads, and pancakes with “fixin’s.” Mrs. Langworthy’s recipes are reproduced below from the New Genessee Farmer (1840, 25). Where she called for “salaeratus,” read baking powder (the chemical reaction is similar), and where she suggests tartaric acid, read cream of tartar. The Tuscarora cornmeal that she used was ground fine, to a consistency similar to Mexican masa barina.
Take two parts of Tuscarora, or other fine corn meal, and one part of wheat flour; mix up with buttermilk, or good sour milk, slightly warmed, adding a little salt. Mix rather thin for Johnny cakes or bread, and thinner still for pancakes. When ready to bake, add a heaping teaspoonful of salaeratus, dissolved in water, and stirred in. It will immediately ferment, and should be baked without delay, taking care to bake thoroughly if thick. If buttermilk or sour milk is not at hand, water may be used, and before adding the salaeratus, add half a teaspoonful of tartaric acid. Or, if preferred, yeast may be used instead of acid, observing to allow it time to ferment and become a little sour (a little of the batter left over from the previous day, will answer as well as yeast), then add the salaeratus as mentioned, just before baking, and the cakes will be very light, sweet, and wholesome, especially if made from the Tuscarora or flour corn.
'White Rice' or 'Egyptian Popcorn'
This popcorn should not be confused with the sweet corn introduced in 1878 as Egyptian or Washington Market. White Rice is a much older variety, although not grown by whites until the 1820s and 1830s. Prior to that it was grown by a number of Native American peoples, including the Iroquois. The plants are short, about 5 feet tall, bearing ears 4 to 7 inches in length and some 30 inches off the ground. The kernels are white, large, and shaped like grains of rice, hence the name. On the ears of corn I have grown, there are normally 22 rows of kernels, so a great deal of popcorn can be harvested from a small patch. There is a red variety of rice corn, but it pops white like this one.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.