Heirloom corn varieties are a lasting legacy bestowed on us by our farming ancestors.
Corn (Zea mays), or maize, as it is called in many parts of the world, is one of the most diverse treasures bestowed upon us by our farming ancestors. Over the centuries Mesoamerican farmers, beginning in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, slowly created the plant we now recognize as corn — starting from a short, nondescript grass called teosinte, which bears just a few seeds surrounded by extremely hard shells. Corn has been grown extensively in North America for more than a millennium and has since spread throughout the world, becoming one of the most widely grown crops on the planet, second only to wheat.
Given the productive nature of corn, which is capable of providing hundreds or even thousands of edible kernels from a single seed, it's no wonder that the crop found a place in the cultural and spiritual traditions of many indigenous peoples. But heirloom corn varieties are endangered today. U.S. agribusiness produces more than 12 billion bushels of corn per year on 80 million acres of land to supply our industrialized food system with inexpensive animal feeds, sweeteners and other products. Most of the corn used for these purposes comes from modern hybrid and genetically engineered varieties that have been bred for maximum yields rather than flavor or nutrition, and that are dependent on environmentally damaging synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.
The corn I am in love with is the traditional kind of corn; the sacred corn of ancient farmers; the corn that is adapted to grow with low inputs and in difficult conditions; the corn that comes in a spectacular rainbow of colors and various sizes and shapes, each representing the work of hundreds of unsung farmer-breeders. These rare heirloom corns offer home gardeners history, beauty and outstanding flavor. Two great ways to enjoy these delicious flavors are by traditional cooking methods — popping (roasting in oil) and parching (dry roasting).
Popcorn is one of the most ancient forms of corn — ears more than 5,000 years old have been discovered in New Mexico caves. Popcorn varieties are flint corns, which have a hard shell that protects the starchy, slightly moist embryo inside. When the kernel is heated above 400 degrees, the moisture inside expands, causing an explosion that pops it.
If you're looking for movie theater-quality popcorn, grow Robust 128YH, which is a high-yielding, gourmet corn with glossy yellow kernels. For a denser and chewier, though slightly less productive variety, try Japanese Hulless, an open-pollinated (OP) type that, as the name implies, leaves little of the hulls attached after popping.
The benefit of growing an OP variety is that you can save your own seeds for planting the following year, and they will reproduce true to type, unlike a hybrid. Recent research suggests the many-hued traditional corns pack additional nutritional properties. For the adventurous, there are dozens of interesting popcorn varieties available in a broad array of colors and sizes, from 4- to 6-inch Dakota Black to 2-inch Strawberry.
Although popcorn is one of Americas favorite snack foods, most of us have never tasted parched corn. Instead of the hard-shelled flint types used for popping corn, parched corn is usually made from the softer-shelled flour varieties. These corns open more gently when heated, slightly enlarging and softening, while becoming chewy and crunchy, with a rich corn flavor. Native Americans parched dried ears on sticks or in clay pots over hot coals. They used the parched corn as trail rations and pounded it into meal for use in bread and soups. When European settlers came to America, they adopted the practice and added parched corn as a staple to their diet.
Any flour corn can be ground to make corn meal, or parched by heating the kernels over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, without oil. Within about five minutes, the kernels should start to swell and split. To avoid burning, be sure to keep them moving by stirring or shaking the pan. It's always wise to hold a lid or screen over the kernels to keep them from popping out.
To parch corn in a microwave, put about a quarter cup of corn on a paper plate, cover with another paper plate and cook on high for two to three minutes, until most of the popping stops.
The best corns for parching cook quickly and completely, expand more, have thinner skins, are more resistant to burning and have distinctive, delicious flavors. Two varieties known for their excellent parching qualities are Supai Red, which has its origins with the Havasupai tribe of the Grand Canyon, and Magenta, a selection from a Hopi variety. Sahuarita and Hopi Pink are also reported to be good for parching.
My own introduction to parching corn came when I met Emigdio Ballon, a native of Bolivia as I was photographing seed varieties in southern New Mexico. Emigdio pulled a small bag of corn from his pocket, popped a few corn kernels into his mouth and held out the bag in his weathered hand. I gratefully took a few and placed them in my mouth expecting something salty and hard like a corn nut. What I experienced was more chewy than crunchy. The parched corn released a rich and slightly sweet corn flavor. After proudly explaining that this type of corn was indigenous to his people of the high Andes Mountains, Emigdio insisted that I take a handful with me. I found the parched corn quite satisfying and sustaining as the day progressed; I was hooked. I'd always loved corn, but this was different; parched corn is somehow more about the essence of corn itself.
After I discovered parched corn, I met plant breeder Carol Deppe, author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, who, with Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds in Corvallis, Ore., has done the most extensive research on parching corn. Deppe tested more than 200 varieties of corn in the mid-1990s to find those varieties most suitable for parching, and to identify varieties suitable for reintroduction. She found the best parching corns were the flour varieties that are usually red, red-striped, lavender, pink or purple, though not all corns of these colors are necessarily good parching corns. Working with Kapuler, Mark Millard, who is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's corn curator, and five cooperating seed companies, Deppe identified and reintroduced a number of good parching corn varieties. Additionally, Deppe, Kapuler and Seeds of Change reselected Supai Red and Magenta specifically for excellence as parching corns, as well as for their ear size and hand-shelling ease.
While many modern corns are bred specifically for popping, there is much we can all do to identify the best flour corns for parching and resurrect this venerable and delicious tradition. Although some of these native corns may be regionally adapted to the southwestern United States and Mexico, I've had good luck with many Hopi and other varieties in my garden in Maine. Use these tips to grow and harvest your own heirloom corn:
Planting. For the best pollination and fullest ears, plant corn in blocks, spirals or clusters on hills, rather than in long rows. Be sure to keep at least 1 foot between plants.
Three Sisters. Try planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans and squash. First plant the corn seeds, then sow a few pole beans among your corn once it reaches 8 inches tall. The corn provides a trellis for the beans, while the bean vines prevent the corn plants from falling over and add nitrogen to the soil. Plant squash or pumpkins around the corn patch to shade the soil from sun and suppress weeds. A thick mat of squash vines also can deter raccoons and other animals from entering your garden.
Growing. Some popping and parching varieties require a long season to mature. In short-season areas, choose varieties that require fewer days to mature (see details at right). Or try starting plants in the greenhouse three weeks before your last frost, then transplant them when the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.
Water. To develop strong root systems, irrigate deeply about once a week.
Weed. Control weeds and conserve soil moisture with deep mulching.
Feed. When plants are 6 inches tall, apply rotted manure, grass clippings or a liquid fish fertilizer to provide nitrogen. Repeat the process when they reach about knee high. Experiment with traditional varieties to learn their needs in your climate and soil.
Pests. If earworms are eating more than their share, wait until the silks begin to turn brown and try applying a few drops of mineral oil where the silks emerge from the husk. Under extreme pest pressure, Bt (Bacillus thuringensis) is a useful organic control.
Drying. If possible, allow the ears to dry on the plants until the husks become brown. If this is not possible because of wet weather or impending frost, harvest the ears and dry indoors by spreading them out at room temperature in a place with good air circulation. Don't apply excess heat as it can cause uneven drying or overdrying, which will affect the corn's pop-ability. Flour corns are very susceptible to molding after harvest, so be sure to dry the ears immediately after harvesting. If the moisture content of the kernels is too high, they won't parch properly. You'll be able to tell that the ears aren't dry enough if the kernels don't come off easily when you try to shell them, or if the bases of the kernels break off and remain on the ear.
Husking. Separate the kernels from the cobs and remove any remaining material (chaff) by winnowing with a fan or in the wind. Pour the kernels from one bowl to another until the chaff has blown away and the seeds are clean.
Storing. Store the cleaned seeds in a tightly sealed jar or other container, and keep it in a cool, dark place. Whole parched corn should keep for at least a month at room temperature. If your corn is not popping well after its been stored for a while, try adding a tablespoon of water to a loosely filled jar of corn and shaking it every day for a week to add moisture.
Eating. For a fresh taste and healthy snack, once your corn is popped or parched, try adding brewer's yeast, herbs or chili powder instead of butter and salt.
Ten years after Emigdio Ballon, a native of Bolivia, introduced me to parched corn, I ran into him again in Tesuque Pueblo, N.M. He was teaching young pueblo members how to grow food for the community and tending a crop of 'Supai Red' parching corn. I went to examine the crop, and at first glance, the plot was fairly unimpressive. The plants were short, unevenly spaced and not well-weeded. But once we got into the field, I realized the plants yielded more on larger ears than any others I'd seen from this variety. With the crop nearly ready for harvest, Emigdio peeled back the husks of several ears to check for dryness. Each was more beautiful than the one before, their kernels shining like gems.
When I asked Emigdio how he’d generated such an abundant crop on these short plants, he told me he prayed to the spirits of the people and animals that have inhabited the land for generations. He also mentioned biodynamic preparations applied to the soil. Other than a small amount of compost spread before planting, he hadn't fed the plants any high-nitrogen fertilizer in the early growth stages, which is the contemporary approach to growing corn. He also hadn’t applied any pest controls, yet the ears showed little damage.
His patch revealed the incredible adaptability of the traditional corns. The ancient genetics in some of our corn varieties were developed under different growing conditions and have adapted accordingly. For instance, many native corns evolved in poor soils with little rain and high winds. As a result, some developed more extensive root systems to forage for nutrients and moisture.
In Emigdio's corn field, I felt that something very special was happening well beyond my usual understanding of agriculture. Clearly, the native people who developed these varieties understood how agriculture and nature interacted.
'Supai Red' is a flour corn originally from the Havasupai tribe of the Grand Canyon. The striped red kernels grow on one or two 8-inch ears per stalk on 6- to 7-foot-tall plants that mature in 105 to 115 days. Supplier: Seeds of Change
'Magenta' is selected from a Hopi flour corn. It has solid magenta-colored ears with thin-skinned kernels. This longer-season variety grows on 6- to 8-inch ears on 5-foot-tall plants that mature in about 110 days. Supplier: Seeds of Change
'Sahuarita' is a family heirloom from Sahuarita, Ariz., that’s been in the family since the 1920s. This flour corn is dry farmed, and reportedly reaches maturity after only six weeks. Supplier: Native Seeds/SEARCH
'Hopi Pink' is a shorter-season flour corn variety with large ears of white and deep pink kernels. Some of the white kernels have pink caps or stripes. It’s mainly used for meal and parched corn, and it matures in 85 to 90 days. Supplier: Native Seeds/SEARCH
'Cochiti' is from the Cochiti Pueblo in northern New Mexico. It produces red, yellow, brown or striped kernels on 4- to 6-inch ears that take 70 to 80 days to mature. Supplier: Native Seeds/SEARCH
'Dakota Black' pops to a bright white with dark markings. Its nearly black, pointed seeds grow on 4- to 6-inch ears that take 95 to 105 days to mature. Suppliers: Fedco Seeds and Seeds of Change
'Japanese Hulless' has few hulls attached to the kernels after popping. The yellow kernels are produced on three to six 4-inch ears on 4- to 5-foot-tall plants that mature in 95 to 105 days. Suppliers: Fedco Seeds and Seeds of Change
'Robust 128YH' (F1 hybrid) is a high-yielding, gourmet yellow popcorn with 7- to 8-inch long ears on 8- to 9-foot plants. Robust’s high expansion ratio makes an extremely tender popcorn that matures in 110 to 115 days. Supplier: Johnny’s Selected Seeds
'Strawberry' grows on two to four 2-inch strawberry-shaped ears per stalk, reaches 5 to 6 feet tall and matures in 100 to 105 days. Supplier: Seed Savers Exchange
Scott Vlaun is a photographer, writer and organic gardener living in Otisfield, Maine. He and his wife, Zizi, co-founded Moose Pond Arts+Ecology, a business dedicated to designing graphics solutions for a sustainable future.