Cherokee rare corn farmer Carl Barnes spent years isolating Native American corn varieties to save a lost heritage, ultimately preserving his glass gem corn seed.
[Click here to view a video slideshow of more stunning 'Carl's Glass Gems' varieties.]
The beginnings of maize, or corn as it is commonly called, go back to the indigenous farmers of south central Mexico who worked with its ancestral grasses to bring forth a usable grain. Over thousands of years the Native peoples of the Americas adopted maize into their agricultural and ceremonial lifeways, and developed it into the diverse forms that we see today.
That little ear of corn with the translucent, jewel-colored kernels, whose picture has recently received attention around the world, has a story. And its kinfolk from a remarkably colorful gene pool share this story. Because of this exposure, I find it appropriate to personally share how this corn originated and its journey to this day.
The original seed was obtained from Carl L. Barnes of Oklahoma. Carl is now in his eighties and lives with his son, A.V. Barnes, on their original homestead in the panhandle of the state, a few miles south of Liberal, Kan.
Carl is of half Cherokee, half Scotch-Irish ancestry and was born in the family’s original farmhouse about a half-mile from his current home. His father had moved the family west, where they acquired land and set up farming on the High Plains. Carl spent his childhood on this homestead, and the family lived through the 1930s Dust Bowl years, staying to survive the ordeal rather than leaving as many did at that time in our history.
As a youth, Carl began to seek out his Cherokee roots, exploring the knowledge of his own ancestors and of Native American traditions in general, by learning from his grandfather. Much of this quest centered on the ceremonies surrounding planting, harvesting, and honoring seeds. Carl went on to earn a degree in Agricultural Education, and later in his adult years worked with the Cooperative Extension Service. He also spent several years serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. Carl continued working the farm, along with his wife Karen, and they raised a family.
In the course of growing some of the older corn varieties still being farmed at that time, Carl began noticing ancestral types of corn re-appearing in his crops. As he isolated these, he found many of the variants to match up with traditional corns that had been lost to many of the Native tribes – particularly those peoples who had been relocated during the 1800s to what is now Oklahoma. Thus, he was able to re-introduce specific corn types to the elders of those tribes, and this helped their people in reclaiming their cultural identities. The corn is, to them, literally the same as their blood line, their language, and their sense of who they are.
Carl went on to acquire other traditional corn seed from these people whom he had befriended. This led to the further exchange of many ancient corns with numerous people around the country. To those that he met, he became known by his spiritual name, White Eagle. Through being of service in this way, Carl awakened to the more esoteric nature of corn and its mystical relationship to human beings. This led to many deep insights, which he shared widely, inspiring many people over the years. In this way, the Sacred Seed was doing its work.
I first met Carl at a native plant and herb gathering in southwest Oklahoma in the fall of 1994. Carl had brought his portable display cases full of ears of traditional corns, which included several curious-looking, four- and five-inch ears, some of which seemed to literally have the whole spectrum of colors. I knew from the start there was something magical in that seed and that I needed to get to know Carl better.
The following spring I met with Carl again when he was visiting his brother near Oklahoma City, where I was living and had grown up. At that meeting Carl gave me a handful of the rainbow-colored seed, and I was honored and grateful to receive it. That was close to the time the Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City. I remember once, shortly after the bombing, I had that small handful of seeds with me and pulled them out of my pocket. At that moment it came to me loud and clear: “This seed is going to change things.”
That year I planted those first seeds in my backyard and during the next several years grew it in modest amounts in Oklahoma and New Mexico, after moving near Santa Fe in 1999.
Over those same years I acquired from Carl a number of additional seed samples of the rainbow corn that was to give rise to ‘Glass Gems,’ to ensure I had a broader genetic base. In addition, Carl gave me seed of a number of his larger traditional native flour corns. During this time my friendship with Carl had grown and I made many visits to his home. In a special room off his house he had shelves and cabinets of his jars, and displays of seed and ears of corn originating from many Native American peoples. The wisdom he shared with me and others who came to visit was the essence of the spirituality of the corn, as well as the sanctity of all seed. On those shelves, the corn became like scrolls of ancient manuscript, and the mere handling of it seemed to confer the transformative power it held. Carl would always remind us, saying: “The seed remembers.”
As for the rainbow corn, I continued to look for anything like it being sold at the farmer’s markets or in seed catalogs. Although I did see a lot of “ornamental” as well as traditional corn out there, some of it very impressive, I never saw anything that carried those specific tones of color that Carl’s corn did. The origin of this corn at first seemed obscure, as Carl had done experimentation with many kinds. But more recently, he shared with me that to his recollection the rainbow corn was derived from his crossings of Pawnee miniature corns with an Osage red flour corn and also another Osage corn called ‘Greyhorse.’ This was probably during the late 1980s. I once asked him where it really came from and he just replied, “Spirit.”
In 2005, I met Jose Lucero of Santa Clara Pueblo, north of Santa Fe. We struck up a deep friendship and agreed to grow the rainbow corn on his land in Santa Clara Canyon. For the first time, it was to be grown on a larger scale. In 2005 through 2007, we grew plots of this corn, along with traditional Spanish and Pueblo flour corns of the upper Rio Grande valley.
I had no reservations about growing the rainbow corn along with the larger corns — I felt it would be beneficial for the smaller rainbow corns to “dance” with the robust Southwestern strains. This “new blood” would help strengthen the genetics of the rainbow corn, as I felt it might have become narrowed somewhat over the years with Carl’s planting of seed from select ears, as well as my own limited plantings leading up to that point. It would turn out that my hunch was right. With each year I began to see the patterns emerge and this rainbow corn evolved into its greater potential. In the fourth year, 2008, we then planted only the rainbow corn. I took a range of the best selections I had, and planted it out to let it show its true colors.
And that it did — in an amazing way. There were tones and patterns more expressive than I had yet seen. The many variations I had become familiar with were there just as before, but with the rich bass notes of the native flour corns giving strength and support while allowing the rainbow spectrum to come through even more.
Over the last several years I have made it a point to give out samples of this seed to numerous people who have seemed interested, at times even to complete strangers. Some seed has made it into Kenya, Mexico, Israel, and more recently, to India. My purpose has been to make sure this corn gets “out there,” into the corn culture and to as many as possible, to circulate and become part of the public domain. My only desire has been that it is grown in a respectful way and shared freely.
In 2009, it occurred to me to give samples of many selections of this seed to Bill McDorman, then the owner of Seeds Trust, an heirloom seed company in Cornville, Ariz. Bill and his partner Belle have since become directors of Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Ariz. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and propagation of hundreds of traditional and indigenous crop seeds from the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
Most of the seed given to Bill originated from that 2008 crop. In addition, numerous close-up digital photos of these corns were shared with Bill for his use in his seed-related education programs. One of these photos I had titled ‘Glass Gems’ and the name stuck. Bill posted that photo on the Seeds Trust website, but it wasn’t until he went over to Native Seeds/SEARCH that the photo and its story spread through the internet. That little ear, as I remember, came from the 2007 crop. It was maybe two-inches-long (five centimeters) at best.
Actually, ‘Glass Gems’ was just one of the handy names I gave the different corn that appeared, to help me remember the characteristics that I saw recurring, like recognizing facial features of an extended family clan. Other names I used were ‘Celeste,’ ‘Circus Colors,’ ‘Blue Pearls,’ ‘Baby Colors,’ ‘Montezuma’s Platinum’ and the like. The ‘Pearls’ type is a shorter, fatter ear with smaller, round-tipped kernels, with rows that form a graceful spiral twist along the length of the ear. This characteristic seemed easy to select for and has appeared in the field often. Particularly stunning is its sky blue variation.
The seed from the ‘Glass Gems’ ear seen in the photo was blended back into the best of the other seed that was sown in the 2008 planting. I have made it a practice to select and plant from as many ears as possible and blend them, rather than plant seed from a single ear or just a few. This is to keep the gene pool broadened while at the same time making selections for certain color tones. Aside from this, no formal plant breeding techniques have been applied with this corn since Carl Barnes.
After the 2008 crop, I moved to a location south of Belen, N.M., and grew small amounts of this corn during 2009 and 2011. However, the seed from the 2008 and 2007 crops constitutes the majority of the stocks, and germination testing in April 2012 showed that most of this seed was sprouting vigorously at 90 percent or better. My current plan is to grow a new, “refresher” crop in 2013 at a rural location near Silver City, N.M., in rich soil several miles from any commercial agriculture, diminishing possible exposure to GMO pollen.
All of these colors and qualities are contained in the diversity of this same general line of corn and in my experience, the different colors and patterns are quite responsive to simple selection from one year to the next. For example, ears with exclusively sky blue, emerald green, pink or the full spectrum of colors can be grown after two or three years. The sky blues tend to appear more readily. Again, seed is selected from as many ears with the desired traits as possible. For seed-saving purposes, for corn specifically, it is ideal for the planting to have at least 200 to 300 plants to maintain the full genetic library of the seed you are starting with. Experimenting with crossing with other traditional corns could spread the magic even further. The possibilities are probably endless.
This corn is an excellent type for introducing children to the magic of planting and harvesting. Seed-to-harvest time is about 110 days, sooner depending on conditions. Plants are medium height for corn, about six feet. Plant the seed in rows 30 inches apart, with 6 to12 inches between resulting plants. Or, traditional native planting style can be done, with 3 or 4 seeds per hole and a spacing of 3 to 4 feet between the clusters. The corn is ready to pick when the husk has turned brown, and each ear is a surprise when opened. The colors appear most intensely at harvest, due to residual moisture, but persist as the ears become completely cured. Although this corn is enjoyed for its beauty, it is completely edible. It exhibits a range of popcorn and flint corn grain characteristic, and although the popping is only marginal (and the colors do not survive the process), the grain can be ground into flour and used like any other cornmeal. Eating this corn off the cob would be possible if the corn is picked when early and soft. Many Native American corns have been tested to have higher concentrations of proteins and other nutrients.
If you are an adult and planting this corn, be aware that you may have some interesting insights and experiences arise in the course of growing it, as there seems to be a certain alchemy that takes place between the corn and the person who plants and tends it. You may begin to sense what the indigenous peoples have always known of their seed — that it is truly one and the same as bloodline, language and spiritual identity, that in the seed we keep and plant is contained the Sacred Code of life.
“These are the seeds that sing.”
-- White Eagle / Carl Barnes
[Click here to view a video slideshow of more stunning 'Carl's Glass Gems' varieties.]
'Carl's Glass Gems' seed is offered through Native Seeds/SEARCH. Due to high demand for 2013, Native Seeds/SEARCH asks that interested farmers and gardeners click here to join their waiting list for 'Carl's Glass Gems' seed. In addition, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is also growing this rainbow corn and hopes to offer it in their 2014 catalog. — MOTHER
Author’s Note: The ‘Carl’s Glass Gems’ corn seed is being grown out and made available by Native Seeds/SEARCH, and thereby helps to support their work. This organization is in my opinion of highest integrity and these people are among the few I feel I could trust to handle this seed in the best possible manner. ‘Carl’s Glass Gems’ can now get out into the world even more, for people everywhere to experience.
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