Indian Corn’s Crisis of Identity

A colorful explanation of this new-old crop. Corn, in its many colors and varieties, has been a staple to the meals of humans for a long time.

indian corn collection

Photo by Andrew Weidman

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Every year as summer ripens into autumn, farm stands and craft shows begin offering Indian corn, from individual cobs to harvest-themed arrangements—clustered ears hanging by their husks, sections of cobs strung into wreaths, and even worked into wheat sheaves and corn shocks. Indian corn’s colorful kernels marry well with other emblems of autumn—blazing leaves and chrysanthemums as well as more reserved squash and straw bales, just to name a few. Yet while many people recognize Indian corn as a familiar symbol of fall, its identity is about as stable as fall’s shifting weather.

What’s in a name? In the case of Indian corn, it’s a collection of assumptions and misnomers. You could certainly make the argument that all corn should be called Indian corn, except for the fact that the “Indians” who developed it had nothing to do with India in the first place.

Plus, the word “corn” really has nothing to do with Zea mays (the botanical name for corn), but comes from German and Old English words for “grain” or “small hard particle.” For example, the “corn” in corned beef refers to corns or grains of salt used in curing the meat; and the Pennsylvania Dutch term for corn is “welshkarn,” which translates literally to “strange grain.”  

The name game gets even stranger. Corn was known in Europe as “Turkish wheat” for many years before scholars in the late 17th century made the argument that this grain was really from the West Indies, not Turkey, and should therefore be called “Indian wheat” instead. Of course, this point completely ignores the obvious fact that wheat and corn have absolutely nothing to do with each other. 

Even now, “corn” automatically means Zea mays only in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In British usage, for example, corn often refers to a region’s local grain, such as oats in Scotland. Until at least the turn of the 20th century, Americans typically referred to all corn and not just colorful varieties, as Indian corn. Maize, a Spanish derivative of the Arowak or Taino word “mahiz”, probably fits much better and enjoys more worldwide popularity, although even that name has a weak legitimacy at best. Maize just happens to be the European adaptation of the first American name the explorers heard.

What about “Lenchasquem,” the Lenni Lenape name, or “Wiachin” of the Quonnectiquot, or maybe the Mexican “Centli” or “Tluolli”? These are just a few of corn’s different Native American names. Plus, there are new names from across the globe. It’s enough to make your head spin!

Patchwork Quilt

Botanically speaking, the notion of Indian corn varieties is a polite fiction; at least as far as multicolored corn is concerned. Indian corn’s vast genetic heritage expresses itself in a beautiful patchwork quilt of colored kernels, some glassy and brilliant, others soft and pastel. That genetic patchwork also causes a large share of Indian corn’s identity crisis. Indian corn is more of a catchall group of colorful corns than a family of distinct varieties.

Corn relies on wind for pollination, and its pollen can, in ideal conditions, ride a breeze for upwards of 2 miles on its trip from tassel to ear! Obviously, winds go where they will and cover a lot of ground getting there, creating lots of opportunities for interesting crosses. Each kernel of a different color is evidence of corn’s promiscuity, genetically distinct from its siblings sharing an ear, and could even arguably be called a distinct new “variety” of its own. Sometimes an ear will even hold a mix of dent, sweet, and other types of corn at once.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any true genetically uniform varieties of Indian corn; they’re just not multicolored. ‘Bloody Butcher’ and ‘Oaxacan Green’ come to mind. Many of these monochromatic varieties held great spiritual significance to their Native American caretakers, who believed they were sacred gifts from the Great Spirit. These original growers went to great lengths to keep each variety pure for centuries before Europeans carelessly planted different corns together, entangling them into the cross-pollinated jumble we know today as Indian corn.

Sure, there are multicolored varieties that have been maintained by Native Americans for centuries, but they are more accurately called landraces. What’s a landrace? In short, that’s another slippery slope, easy to define, but hard to pin down. The book 1491 by Charles Mann, gives a pretty good definition of a landrace as a collection of closely related varieties, each of which can have many different local strains. Hugo Perales poetically describes landraces as “rolling hills in a landscape, each one obvious and yet connected to its neighbors in a way that makes it impossible to tell where one variety ends and the next begins.”

Confused yet? Hang on, there’s another pesky little detail to consider. Indian corn doesn’t even fit neatly into one particular family of corn types. It can be a dent corn, flour, flint, or popcorn. There are even multicolored sweet corn varieties!

While many varieties of Indian corn resulted from accidental cross-pollination, others are the product of very careful crossings and selection. They even have a special name: composites.

One example is Dave Christiansen’s composite, ‘Painted Mountain.’ More than 30 years ago, Mr. Christiansen saw a need for a high-altitude, cold-climate corn that subsistence farmers could easily manage in the drier Western states. The heirloom variety ‘Mandan Bride’ first caught his attention, but he quickly discovered that most of the lines available had become hopelessly inbred and weakened. His solution to this problem was to selectively crossbreed over 70 different heirloom lines of corn; many of them obscure local strains, to create ‘Painted Mountain.’

While some of these parental lines have since slipped into extinction, their genetic heritage continues in ‘Painted Mountain,’ which has been introduced to such far-flung regions as Siberia and South Africa.

Modern field corns also owe their existence to Indian corn. The original dent corns like 'Lancaster Surecrop' sprang from crossings of Northern Flint and Gourd seed corns. By the turn of the 20th century, universities began the first hybridizing studies, using corn. Corn proved to be an ideal test subject for several reasons. It crosses readily, the results of crosses can be seen in the first year, and the plants are easily manipulated. Researchers could plant two varieties side by side in a field, and simply remove the tassels from one of the varieties. The detasseled variety would produce only hybrid seed, while the second variety would produce more seed of its own kind. Simple, quick and easy!

The Role of Big Ag

Corn’s penchant for wanton crossbreeding can be a double-edged sword in today’s climate of genetic experimentation and big-ag land management. State-of-the-art mechanized field management and harvesting methods demand a highly uniform crop, growing to the same height at the same rate and maturing at the same time. Almost by definition, that high uniformity equals low genetic diversity.

Plus, current agricultural practices promote large swathes of land planted to a single crop, called monoculture. In 2011, the United States harvested 84 million acres of corn, more than 90 percent hybrid, more than 85 percent of which was genetically modified. To put the numbers in perspective, that’s just 2 million acres less than Iowa and Nebraska combined! That means there is a lot of corn pollen in the air.

Is it any wonder that finding genetically pure heirloom corn lines is becoming increasingly difficult, and may soon be a practical impossibility in the very near future? When the diverse building blocks of the old lines have been lost, how can we hope to breed new lines capable of surviving unforeseen pressures? Can we risk losing the genetic treasure trove represented in Indian corn, with increasing demands for higher crop production and news of climate change, herbicide-resistant weeds, and crop failures?

But Can You Eat It?

It may seem like a paradox, but one way to help preserve Indian corn is by eating it. As more people create more demand for Indian corn and similar open-pollinated grains, more farmers will find these crops to be increasingly profitable. The grain that fueled countless Native American societies before fueling the foundation of the United States gets surprisingly little respect as a food source today. A quick web search on Indian corn gives the distinct impression that it’s strictly ornamental, with no real flavor or nutritional value. Oh sure, a few sites dubiously mention that one “could grind it into cornmeal, but why bother?” No doubt these opinions are all built on the assumption that modern dent corns are somehow more flavorful or nutritious than older varieties. That just isn’t so.

As with other vegetables, more color and different color means more of the compounds that supply flavor and nutrition. It’s plain to see that Indian corn definitely has a full complement of these compounds. Carotenoids pro-vide flavor and proteins in the starchy kernel, while anthocyanins in the outer layer provide vitamins and antioxidants. Open-pollinated corn tends to test higher in protein and trace minerals than hybrid varieties, as well. On the other hand, modern hybrid field corn has been selectively bred for cheap, high production of starches, oils and sugars, with little regard for flavor or nutritional value. Current corn breeding focuses more on industrial applications than dietary needs, and that’s not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

In comparison, Indian corn has a time-honored tradition as a delicious and nutritious food. Native Americans and European settlers alike survived and even thrived on Indian corn. Indian corn has been going into succotash, mush, corndodgers, tortillas, hominy, nixtamal (grain corn treated with lime or lye to free locked-up niacin) corn breads and pones for centuries, to name just a few of the possibilities. Different regions had their own favorite corns for their traditional foods (Blue corn tortillas, anyone?). In my region, South Central Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Dutch tradition held that meal corn was roasted on the cob before being ground, giving a darker, richer flavor to the meal.

Anthony Boutard, author of Beautiful Corn, America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate (New Society Publishers) has this to say about Indian corn:

“Of all the grains, corn is the one best suited to backyard gardens and small market farms. The plant evolved in the various polycultures that define the agriculture of the Americas, so this amiable plant coexists with our vegetable crops. Starting with its earliest cultivators, it was selected for hand cultivation and harvest, so no special tools are required. Popcorn is the most versatile form of the grain, as it can be ground for flavorful cornmeal, steeped in pickling lime to make hominy, the baby ears are sweet and tender and, of course, you can sit down with a bowl of popcorn at the end of the day. There are also beautiful and richly flavored dent and flint varieties still available. With careful selection of seed ears, the grower can adapt their favorite variety to their own neighborhood, starting the process of re-regionalizing this wonderful grain.”

Indian corn has been powering America since long before Columbus arrived on these shores. Its genetics have built the varieties that feed and drive the world, and surely contains traits needed in developing even more varieties yet to come. American cultures, both Native and European, have been enriched immeasurably by it.

Indian corn deserves to be respected and valued far more than as just an ornament or decoration soon to be forgotten as the season changes. Instead of throwing those beautiful ears away as the winter holidays approach, why not bring them to the table?

I’ll conclude with a Pennsylvania Dutch roasted corn meal recipe, as written by Beatrice Bachman Weidman.

Pennsylvania Dutch Roasted Corn Meal Recipe

Dry selected ears of field, dent or Indian corn, in a slow, open-door oven for several days or until the corn shells easily by hand. The cornmeal is tasty when the corn has been slightly browned.

Shell, and then take to a mill to have it ground (or mill it yourself with a hand mill). Put into an oblong pan and bake in a slow oven (275 degrees Fahrenheit) for a more toasted flavor. Stir occasionally and cool. Store in a tight container.


Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.