On Christmas Eve, I got a pre-holiday gift when the first seed catalog of the season arrived in our mailbox. I read each seed description carefully, marking the most favored varieties with a red pen and a dog-eared page. Later, I will hone those choices into a reasonable and affordable list.
I only grow open-pollinated seeds, and I try to save the seeds of the plants that do well in our microclimate. Every year I try out new varieties, trying to find the perfect vegetables that do well in the heat and in our dry, clay soil. Many plants do not grow so well here—that means I have space to try new seeds every year.
Early last spring, a photo of Glass Gem corn circulated on the Internet. It was pretty, multicolored, flint corn with an intriguing luster to its kernels. I tried to find seeds to buy, but the corn’s photo and story had gone viral by then, and there were no seeds available. According to nativeseeds.org:
Like many heirloom treasures, Glass Gem corn has a name, a place, and a story. Its origin traces back to Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer living in Oklahoma. Barnes had an uncanny knack for corn breeding. More specifically, he excelled at selecting and saving seed from those cobs that exhibited vivid, translucent colors. Exactly how long Barnes worked on Glass Gem—how many successive seasons he carefully chose, saved, and replanted these special seeds—is unknown. But after many years, his painstaking efforts created a wondrous corn cultivar that has now captivated thousands of people around the world.
Approaching the end of his life, Barnes bestowed his precious seed collection to Greg Schoen, his corn-breeding protégé. The weighty responsibility of protecting these seeds was not lost on Schoen. While in the process of moving in 2010, he sought out a place to store a sampling of the collection to ensure its safekeeping. Schoen passed on several unique corn varieties to fellow seedsman Bill McDorman, who was owner at the time of Seeds Trust, a small family seed company then located in central Arizona. Curious about the oddly named Glass Gems, he planted a handful of seeds in his garden. The spectacular plants that emerged took him by surprise.
The story of Barnes, Schoen, and their remarkable corn is not unusual. For millennia, people have elegantly interacted with the plants that sustain them through careful selection and seed saving. This process, repeated year after year, changes and adapts the plants to take on any number of desirable characteristics, from enhanced color and flavor to disease resistance and hardiness.
What history, what dedication, what an adventure in gardening! I was resigned to waiting to get my hands on this wonderful corn. I thought that maybe, by next year, the seed would be more plentiful.
One day, I followed an obscure thread on a gardening blog and ended up at Native Seeds/SEARCH—a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting seed conservation (nativeseeds.org). They had Glass Gem Indian corn seed available. Not wanting to be greedy, I ordered a single packet of seeds immediately. Two days later, the still wildly popular seeds were no longer available on the website, but mine were on their way.
I was already growing a crop of Golden Bantam sweet corn in the lower garden. My husband Bob-O added manure and tilled a new corn patch 200 yards farther up the canyon. Corn is cross-pollinated by wind, not bees. I was kind of worried about the new bed’s location, as the packet description said the corn “does not like heat or wind.” That new bed gets summer sun, all day long, and gets the down-canyon wind that drives our wind turbine, spring through fall. But, a lot of times, gardening is about taking chances.
The seed packet did not have any information printed about the number of days to maturity, but my research about flint corn and popcorn told me 80 days to maturity seemed a good guess. I like to soak my corn seed until it sprouts, then I plant it in a seedling tray for three days. When the little corn plant is green and about 2 inches tall, I replant it into the ground. This sounds like a bunch of work, but I wanted to do everything I could to ensure the corn’s survival. Runs of hoses, with a water dripper placed every 12 inches, supply water to the plants. I lay these hoses on top of the rows, turn them on for 30 minutes, then go back and plant a corn plant in every wet spot.
My Glass Gem corn did surprisingly well. The corn grew about seven feet tall. Some stalks had as many as five ears sticking out like oat spears. There was a rainbow of colors—reds, oranges, purples, and even greens—although all of the ears from a particular plant had the same color scheme. For instance, if a plant had ears of white pearlescent kernels dotted with pink and blue accents (I dubbed this “wedding corn”) then every ear from that plant would be wedding corn.
I harvested the ears and, as they dried, played with them. I grouped the ears by color. I spread them in a graduated color rainbow of corn. I made small groups containing one of each color scheme. It was so beautiful that I wanted to wear it like jewelry.
I grew this corn for seed. As soon as I planted the seed, I asked my gardening friends if they wanted some of my harvest. By the time I shucked the corn, I had quite a long list of seed beneficiaries. I felt very good about growing and sharing an extraordinary heirloom like this corn. I think the way to keep this variety going is to plant the seeds from the ears we like most.
I believe the Native American saying—We are Corn People. There is something that stirs your heart deeply when you are in a tall patch of beautiful corn. From the time the honey bees find the newly opened pollen tassels to stripping the last ear from its dried husk, the corn patch is inspiring. Every ear of this corn that I husked was a gorgeous gift, and for that I am grateful.
Kathleen Jarschke-Schultze is considering growing ancient grains at her off-grid home in northern-most California.