Indigenous Corn Cultivars

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by Amyrose Foll
Many Indigenous corn cultivars have a nutty flavor because they don’t contain the same sugar content as the commercial hybrids commonly available in grocery stores.

Before heading to your favorite local spot to pick up the useful, but not very inspiring, F1 hybrid sweet corn cultivars, consider making some space for something a little more unexpected in this year’s garden. Believe it or not, what most people commonly group together as “Indian Corn” is actually a wonderfully diverse range of cultivars, and all are edible. We’ve just developed an amnesia of sorts here in the United States. To be completely honest, all corn is, in fact, Indian corn. The simple beauty of corn transformed meals around the globe with the Columbian exchange. Sister corn deserves time in the spotlight for all her contributions to our nourishment.

Biodiversity. Comprising less than 5 percent of the world’s population, Indigenous people protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. With the weather extremes we’re experiencing, many of these old cultivars that our farming ancestors curated for us may hold answers to the climate crisis. Some of these plants have been adapted to need little water, or to have short life cycles. They may very well be the answer to evolving our agriculture to change with the climate.

Cultural preservation. Our bone dust and blood have mixed with corn’s roots, and this land, for a thousand generations. It’s crucial to preserve these less-common cultivars that gave birth to all modern commercial corn. Each seed represents millennia of growing seasons and favored traits, and these seeds were carefully selected by our ancestors as a promise of successful future harvests to ensure the survival of subsequent generations. Keep planting them, continue the cycle from year to year, and save the diversity of our native corn from being lost.

Climate resilience. A changing climate affects not only plant and animal life, but also us. We evolved in nature, and we can’t be separated from it, no matter how large or populous the conurbation we may reside in. Climate is the foundation of the food web that binds us all together, and we must ensure its preservation. Uncommon cultivars may carry traits that will help us weather new climate patterns.

Nia Skamonikikonal (My Cornfields)

Let me introduce you to my top 10 favorite cultivars of corn. Each one is unique, and has a special place in that famous triumvirate of the sacred Three Sisters garden. I’m neither scholar nor scientist, but my Creator and ancestors have entrusted me with the responsibility to preserve ancestral knowledge for generations to come. I’m to hold this knowledge, and gently pass it into the future so our seeds and their stories may nourish and strengthen our children and grandchildren. In these past two decades of farming, I’ve learned more from the garden than I ever thought possible. The garden teaches patience and perseverance, and allows those who came before us to live on through our work in the garden. By saving our seeds from year to year, we become part of that story. Without the labor of our ancestors, these seeds wouldn’t exist in our hands today. The seeds are a gift to future generations. We must work together to preserve that legacy of wisdom through biodiversity.

‘Abenaki Rose.’ This is a heritage flint corn that’s close to my heart, like a special wisdom passed to me from my ancestors. It has become a change agent for me in my views of planting seeds, saving seeds, and giving seeds freely to feed others. Flint corn, such as the ‘Abenaki Rose’ cultivar, would’ve once been a staple of the Dawnland (New England, Newfoundland, Quebec, and the surrounding St. Lawrence Seaway area). Flint corn dominated Indigenous diets in the area, and would’ve been a common item in the pantries of farmhouses through the 1800s. Flint cornmeal is an excellent choice for making traditional Pequot or Narragansett hoecakes (or “journey cakes”). I adore the irregular rose halos and interesting markings of this quintessential Abenaki heirloom corn.

‘Pima White’ or ‘Pima.’ This vital variety is truly a gift from the Akimel O’odham and the Tohono O’odham people, and a testament to their agricultural prowess. This unassuming flour or flour-flint corn is a thrifty user of modest amounts of water. Around 60 days, it reaches the green corn stage (milk stage) a full two weeks earlier than many other Southwestern low desert varieties. It’s generally a short, stocky, fast-growing corn, and it has excellent drought resistance. When harvested at the green-corn stage, it’s traditionally roasted over mesquite coals, sun-dried, and then stored on the cob. It can then be made into corn pinole and stone-ground meal. Roasting this corn converts the starches into sugars, giving it an exceptional sweet taste when made into porridge. It can also be left to mature and dry on the plant. This is ideal for making corn flour. I highly recommend this corn for areas experiencing hotter, drier summers in the face of climate change.

‘Blue Clarage.’ This sapphire beauty is an ideal corn for making cornmeal. It boasts a high sugar content compared with other dent corns, and it can hold its own as a sweet corn when harvested during the milk stage. Our gardens at Virginia Free Farm regularly exhibit 12-foot-high stalks. It thrives in the mid-Atlantic growing conditions of Virginia’s Piedmont Region. Our seedstock was originally purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

‘Glass Gem.’ Arguably one of the most stunning corn cultivars, this flint corn is like no other heirloom in the world. It’s gained a cult following in the past decade, and has likely influenced many a seed saver and fostered enthusiasm for backyard gardening. It’s fabled to be a mix of Osage, Cherokee, and Pawnee corn, and it’s the magnum opus of Cherokee seedsman Carl Barnes.

‘Supai Red Parch.’ This cultivar is excellent for parching or dry roasting. Parching, an ancient treat, is thought to be one of the earliest ways in which hunter-gatherers ate grains. Parching is done by heating dry kernels without oil at a medium to low heat. Roast parched corn and add some seasoning, and you’ll have your own delicious corn nuts at home that can rival any commercially available snacks. They should be pulled from the pantry more often, and not exist as simply a seldom-utilized exotic on the shelf. ‘Supai Red Parch’ is an excellent choice for growers interested in producing their own snacks for a hike; it travels well, and it has an impressive shelf life and a robust flavor profile.

‘Cherokee Gourdseed.’ Tooth corns, or gourd seed corns, are part of an old family of dent corns that has roots in its ancient Mexican ancestor teosinte. Teosinte is the primitive cornlike plant from which all modern corn is descended. These tooth corns hail from an offshoot of domesticated lines in the American South that come from the corn of pre-Columbian Mexico.

‘Kulli’ or ‘Maíz Morado.’ This is a large subtropical corn that needs a long season of 120 to 160 days, depending on your seed stock. It’s one of the darkest-colored corns known, with a delicious flavor, and it’s believed to have the highest amount of healthy anthocyanins of any corn. This outstanding beauty can easily grow up to 15 feet tall, and can be picked young for sweet corn. In addition to its uses as flour and fabric dye, this corn makes for an interesting roasted corn on the cob, but bring a toothbrush; you’ll be left with a lovely lilac-colored tongue after chowing down on this delicious Peruvian heirloom.

‘Bofo.’ This speckled cultivar is the multicolored sacred maize of the Huichol people of Nayarit and the Cora people of Durango. It has an elongated elliptical shape and delicately speckled kernels arranged among the pink, purple, and white. Some speculate that it’s a relative or source of Native American speckled maize. It has a place in ceremony, as well in the kitchen in the form of cookies, porridge, fermentations, and stews.

‘Montana Cudu.’ Each kernel bears a tiny blot of color, like a Rorschach test. Each ear is a love letter to the farming mothers of Montana. This is a cultivar adapted in the last 50 to 60 years from more ancient corns found in northern Montana. Each kernel has a signature “blue eagle” on top of the pericarp. I absolutely adore the long, thin ears and spotted kernels.

‘Bolita Belatove.’ This is possibly one of the most uncommon varieties of heirloom corn in Mexico. It bears brilliant purple and red kernels. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and can be worked into a gorgeous mauve-colored masa. This corn is a local favorite for making pinkish tortillas to amuse local children and to provide a nice change of pace from yellow or blue corn chips.

Corn in Ceremony

Corn also has an important role in ceremony to us (the Abenaki) and many more tribes throughout Turtle Island (North America). For us, the Green Corn Ceremony is a celebration of the year’s harvest being ensured. It marks the time when we know the plants have succeeded in producing the sustenance we’ll need to carry us through the long, cold days and nights of winter. Ceremonial fires, cook fires, dancing, and blessings are carried out in gratitude. These customs are widespread agricultural rituals common among many other tribes as well. The fact that it’s one of the most important ceremonies to so many cultures across North America really drives home how important corn is in the daily lives of Indigenous people.

Traditional Corn Planting

The traditional ways of planting corn, such as the Abenaki Seven Sisters, or the more well-known and widespread Three Sisters, have ecological advantages that one-crop fields don’t: soil regeneration, varied nutrition, and resistance to plant pests and disease. Because our traditional ways of knowing and agroecology were different from Western science, they were previously relegated to anecdotal evidence, or some experimental corner of the garden as a curiosity. We have the stories, but Western science has the numbers, and, ironically enough, savvy marketing has labeled it “regenerative” and bridged the gap between the two. My only hope is that those who jump on this trend, which neatly packages traditional Indigenous land management practices from across the globe to use at scale, take these practices to heart so that they’re here to stay.

With the rainbow of color variations, and a bevy of variation in height, form, and habit, some of these extraordinarily resilient cultivars might be crucial for seeing us through climate change and extreme weather. If nothing else, they’re rare beauties. I hope you find some room for them in your garden, and try your hand at saving and sharing their seeds.

Generalized Stages of Corn Growth

Tassel stage. The bottommost branch of the tassel is completely visible, and the silk hasn’t emerged.

Silking stage. The silks are visible outside the husks.

Blister stage. The kernels appear white on the outside, with clear liquid inside.

Milk stage. This stage, aka the “green corn stage,” is when the corn ends up in your local market. This stage occurs about 20 days after silking, as kernels develop, and it can be identified when the kernels are soft and release a sweet milk when pressed. The stage at which retailers sell what is now commonly referred to as “Indian corn” occurs much later, when the plant’s kernels are fully mature. This stage is generally when pozole, grits, corn flour, and parched corn products are created.

Amyrose Foll is a fervent advocate for food sovereignty, earth and people care, and resource sharing. She’s a U.S. Army veteran and former nurse, and she continues her duty to protect and care for others through Virginia Free Farm. Learn more at Virginia Free Farm.

Preserve Biodiversity

Want to start saving seeds, but aren’t sure where to begin? Then our “Seed Saving 101” course is for you. Bevin Cohen of Small House Farm is your guide in this introduction to the world of saving seeds. Workshop videos produced by Bevin cover such topics as building community by sharing seeds; the living history of heirloom varieties; understanding the terminology; pollination, seed processing, and storage; and more. Learn more at MOTHER EARTH NEWS fair.

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