Save a strain by decorating with corn

  • Flint corn varieties share rich, deep coloring and hard- shelled kernels. Decorating with Indian corn is an environmental way to protect heirloom crops. Tribune news service

Tribune News Service
Friday, November 17, 2017

If we stopped cultivating corn, it would soon become extinct. This is because corn cannot grow as a volunteer or weed. Although kernels are fertile seed, their presence on a cob is so dense they sprout and die in a mass of seedlings. The corn we know today is Zea maize, a species that was literally created by human beings. They dramatically changed its grassy progenitor, teosinte into the productive plants we know today.

Teosinte is a curious reedlike plant native to the long growing season of southern Mexico. It bears tassels and very tiny ears right at the top. Indigenous peoples began working with teosinte millennia ago. Through selection of plants for seed, many improved forms resulted. This proves teosinte must contain a massive gene pool with a high degree of variability within the species. It is inclined to exhibit recessive genes more often than other species that are more stable. If that recessive gene was useful, that is the plant that would provide seed for next year’s crop. Each year, a little bit of change occurred in the landrace until modern corn emerged.

Over millennia, the plants changed and spread northward, where conditions are colder and the growing season shorter. These were taken up by Midwestern tribes who farmed the flood plains of the great rivers. Individual plants were selected that grew and matured quickly for seed stock in the far northern seasons. Here are some examples of variation in the Native American corn strains.

Flint corn varieties are so named for the rock-hard outer covering of each kernel making their colors bright and deep. This is important for winter storage because flint corn is harder for mice and bugs to breach the flint hard shell. Flint corn is like today’s popcorn and stores indefinitely.

Flour corn is easy to identify by its big fat kernels with a matt finish. The outer covering is much softer, with significantly more starch inside. These kernels don’t store very long as pantry moth larvae easily breach the thin skin. This corn was ground into meal used for bread and gruels.

Dent corn shows a blend of flint and flour characteristics. Kernels dry with a divot or “dent” in the center, hence the name. Kernels are large and the covering is medium density. It stores longer than flour corn, but is much easier to grind than flint.

Perhaps the last unique aspect of corn in the Americas is Mexican truffles. These are corn kernels infected with a black fungus to create a unique blend of grain and mushroom, first appreciated by the Aztecs, who found it in their own corn strains. It’s called huitlacoche (wee-tlah-KOH-cheh). Translation from the Nahuatl language means “crow excrement,” describing its unsavory appearance. Yet this food is still a big part of Mexican cuisine today. In fact, it is canned and sold in indigenous marketplaces and is also preserved by freezing. It’s added to tamales and soups. When fresh, the puffed up kernels are boiled for 10 minutes, then sauteed until crispy in butter.

It’s interesting to note that these old corn strains remain in cultivation primarily for holiday decorating. Without that tradition, most of them would have become extinct due to lack of continuous cultivation. Remember, these plants can’t self sow so once they’re gone their genes vanish.

What all this means is decorating with Indian corn is a very environmental way to protect heirloom crops, landraces and their precious Zea maize genetics. Every ear you buy for the holidays becomes an act of preservation that makes it profitable for small growers to keep the old strains alive. Because we don’t grow corn for grinding in home vegetable gardens, few of these indigenous strains are grown at home today. From now on, feel good about buying colorful corn each year, particularly from local farmers. Help them help you do your part to encourage strain preservation, protect diversity and organic agriculture, even if you’re not a gardener.