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.
‘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.
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.