Snack Wisely: Discover Heirloom Cherokee Popcorn

Heirloom Cherokee popcorn variety ‘Cherokee Long Ear’, with its vivid combination of colors, is more than an attractive home decoration. Popcorn is one of the original types of corn grown in the Americas, and ‘Cherokee Long Ear’ popcorn tops the heirloom list because it can be incorporated into a wide range of culinary uses: It can be ground into cornmeal, eaten like sweet corn, or popped and used in soups. We’ve even included a recipe for popcorn pie!

| December 2007/January 2008

Discover heirloom Cherokee popcorn and how to grow and cook with this nutritious, colorful heirloom variety. This heirloom variety produces delicious popcorn that makes the industrial kernels we’re used to eating from the microwave and in movie theaters taste like Styrofoam.

Cooking With Cherokee Popcorn

Heirloom Cherokee Popcorn Pie Recipe

Who says popcorn kernels have to be yellow? We’ve grown so accustomed to microwave popcorn and the hybrid corn varieties developed for high yields and big kernels, that a whole world of long-forgotten heirloom popcorn varieties are waiting to be rediscovered.

Popcorn is one of the oldest types of corn grown in the Americas, and there are many heirloom varieties with flavors and textures so remarkable that they make the industrial stuff taste like Styrofoam peanuts. I put ‘Cherokee Long Ear’ popcorn at the top of the heirloom list, not just because it’s highly decorative with vivid color combinations, but also because this heirloom Cherokee popcorn offers a range of culinary uses well beyond the common snack. Like many traditional popcorns, it can be ground for cornmeal, eaten young like sweet corn, or used in soups. You can even make popcorn pie! (See the popcorn pie recipe at the top of this article.)

So what’s the story on Cherokee popcorn? Popcorn is thought to have developed in Mexico many thousands of years ago and then spread through the rest of North America and into South America. Some Native American groups may have been growing it earlier than other types of corn because of its many culinary applications. The Cherokee Nation probably acquired the popcorn through trade contacts with some other group, but they tinkered with it and made the variety what it is today. It’s different from most popcorns in that the kernels come in a rainbow of shades: yellow, white, purple, pink, blue, rose, red, black, olive, orange and more, which is why this corn is so popular as a decoration. A certain number of cobs will be almost uniform in color with dark reds or blacks predominating. These kernels can be set aside and grown by themselves, so that eventually you can have your own designer colors of popcorn.

By popcorn standards, Cherokee’s ears are considered long because most traditional popcorn varieties grow on cobs from 2 1/2 to 4 inches in length. Cherokee ears are 5 to 7 inches long, and the cobs are skinny, almost like cigars. The kernels are tiny, yet the popped corn is surprisingly large.

9/28/2012 4:28:12 PM

Thank you for the link to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I definitely will try the popcorn next growing season. The only place you can buy 'real' popcorn in our town is rural king. I grew Indian corn this year but the drought pretty much ruined it. Will try again with this. Thanks!

5/15/2009 8:35:58 AM

I found the seed for Cherokee popcorn at S. Seed Exchange. Click on 'corn', then 'popcorn', then look for 'rainbow'. We just put our garden in and are sharing a few seeds with a friend in Atlanta so we look forward to seeing how the crop does. Thanks for the tip, Mother Earth News!

2/8/2008 12:26:55 AM

I followed your link to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange but could not find Cherokee Popcorn there. Please help me find it somewhere else. Thank you.

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