This past week I decided to take a break from my creative pursuits and consume some content rather than create. While browsing through YouTube, I stumbled across a documentary titled Seed: The Untold Story. I decided to give it a try and watched the entire documentary. Within the documentary they discussed how big agricultural and chemical corporations are to blame for the loss of a large amount of heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains. This is due in part to hybrid varieties being able to produce larger products and overall yields.
This gain comes with a cost though as all know the saying, “all that glitters is not golden”. These hybrids are strong producers, but are more prone towards pest damage and diseases. Coincidentally some of “inventors” of the hybrid varieties also produce pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Farmers were/are often coerced to make a switch from traditional seeds for hybrids so that they could “make more money” despite relying on the various companies for everything, typically causing more debt and reliance on an external company. This shift to hybrid seeds is what caused the traditional seeds to die out over time. It is stated that many of these companies paid the farmers for their old seeds, making it impossible to go back from the new hybrid seeds. For those who do not know, hybrid plants typically are infertile or have unpredictable offspring.
Corn is the highest yielding grain crop in the world, it originated thousands of years ago in what now is Central Mexico from a wild grass is known as teosinte. The creation of the grain crop quickly spread from Mexico all the way up into what is now the United States. Throughout this spread within North America, the diversity of corn genetics changed and various cultures selected for traits that were beneficial for their needs and environment/weather over generations. It seems that almost every agriculture based society/tribe had their own variety or of corn.
The documentary does a good job at explaining the importance of these varieties culturally and sustainably given the looming issues of climate change, but I suggest you watch it and consider the perks of growing heirloom corn and other heirloom varieties of food. These seeds can be replanted infinitely and stay true to the parent genes so long as they don’t cross with any other varieties of the same genus/species. A lot of these varieties are dent corns or flour corns and not sweet corn. These are intended to be grown with the intention of drying and grinding the corn to make a variety of traditional dishes. Consider making the investment in a grain mill if you decide to grow any of these varieties in the near future as to utilize your harvest. I have a blog article and YouTube video on the subject.
Many of these varieties are relatively low maintenance; retain health benefits, as well as strong cultural ties to the tribes that created them. I truly believe that these are some of the corn varieties that would save the world during an extreme famine or water crisis, if it ever were to occur. Not only would you be securing your edge in food security, but you would also be preserving the variety from extinction. Sometimes I like to imagine all the people/generations that held the same corn variety in their hands and how they moved across regions throughout the years.
1. Hopi Corn
I will admit that this is the only corn variety on this list that I have grown. Before you click off of the blog, do listen to what I have to say. Look at this list as what it truly is. I don’t have a seed company, nor do I have any ties to ones besides the ones I buy seed from out of my own pocket. Look at this list as more of a shopping list. A shopping list to help fortify your own personal seed bank as you see fit.
As I mentioned above a lot of tribes cultivated their own varieties of corn to better suit their own needs, tastes, and environmental limitations. The Hopi people took a great deal of care and effort in regards to growing corn. It is one of the things that they are known for. The Hopi people were based in the hot American Southwest desert. It gets very hot and there is little rain.
This means that the corn they grew needed to be tough and drought tolerant, which it was/is. As far as I can tell there are 3 varieties of corn that the Hopi grew, blue corn, pink corn, and purple varieties. There is probably more, but I am only most familiar with their blue variety so I will really only focus on this variety.
Hopi blue corn is a flint corn which means it has a hard outer shell and “soft” endosperm (interior of seed/kernel). This type of corn is traditionally used for grinding and making masa for tortillas and tortilla chips. It can also just be ground into flour and used for things like corn bread and polenta. If you wanted you can also eat it during the milk stage like sweet corn (which I have) and it does taste sweet, it just doesn’t have much water in the kernels like the sweet corn you can buy at the store. This variety is said to have 20% more protein than other corn varieties too. The flavor of blue corn is more earthy or nutty, but not a whole lot different.
As I mentioned before, it is drought resistant which is very attractive given the uncertain impact of climate change and relatively poor water regulation/allocation policy within much of the United States. I also liked that it has higher amounts of nutrition than other corn varieties as well as other health benefits related to the antioxidants. If you are curious about this variety check out my video over the advantages and basics of the three sisters growing method where I discuss it a bit more in detail, if you are curious about the three sisters growing method I wrote an extensive article over it a while back which I will link here.
2. Pawnee Eagle Corn (if you find it)
I hadn’t heard of this variety until I started looking for more local indigenous corn varieties since I don’t live in the desert. The Pawnee used to reside within regions around where I currently live and after hearing about the attempt that the Pawnee tribe and allies are making to revive the sacred seed from the brink of extinction I wrote an email to the website of the movement to see how I could help or get involved, but have yet to hear a response.
PBS did a whole mini-documentary on their great efforts to revive the corn and I thought it was pretty interesting. They currently don’t seem to be selling the seeds as of now, though as they increase their seed bank over time I am sure that efforts will be made to sell the seeds to raise money for the tribe. I hope to be able to potentially do some work with the project if they get back with me as I would love to help make the seed available for everyone and help a tribe regain its connection back to a traditional diet and cultural traditions.
This variety is also a flint or flour corn that is white with splotches of black/purple, often times creating an eagle like silhouette on some kernels. This variety is also said to be drought resistant, though not much is said about its nutrition or preferred climate, though I would assume it would do best in central or the North central Midwest. I am really excited to see where the program goes with the seeds as they rely on donation and volunteers to get work done. I hope to one day hold the seeds in my hand.
3. Glass Gem
I have learned throughout my recent fixation of heirloom corn varieties that not all indigenous varieties are truly 100% the same genetics as they were 100-200 years ago. Glass gem corn is an example of the modern creativity when it comes to plant breeding. A lot of modern breeders seem to be crossing ancient varieties with varieties to better suit their climate or for a more aesthetic appeal.
Glass gem corn is a beautiful corn. Anyone who has had the ability to grow it typically is amazed by its colors. If you haven’t seen it yet I encourage you to look it up and see for yourself. This variety was created by Carl Barnes. He was able to achieve such stunning colors by crossing a few other traditional varieties. This corn is known as a popcorn variety, though it can easily be ground up and used in similar manors as the corn varieties previously mentioned.
Even though this variety isn’t a “true” traditional variety, I do like that it is a melting pot of various varieties. This gives it some flexibility in what beneficial genes could be expressed. I consider it a wild card and am hoping to grow some this next season.
There is a ridiculous amount of varieties of corn out there, but there used to be more. Each year more and more varieties of plants and produce are lost to compliance with big Ag companies. It is in the hands of small scale seed holder too help prevent these varieties from being lost forever. Given the current circumstances I think it would be very valuable to hold onto some of these heirloom varieties to get through some hard times that potentially lie ahead.
If you have the space and time, I highly recommend growing any heirloom variety you can find and saving the seeds for next year. This allows you to start saving up your own seed bank. I plan to do some more writing in regards to dry grain storage in the future so please stay in tuned.