‘Glass Gem’ Corn

Beautiful, multi-colored kernels make ‘Glass Gem’ corn one of the most distinctive cultivars, and it’s a heritage open-pollinated variety, too.

| Summer 2016

Corn. What do you think of when you hear the word? Bright yellow...on the cob? Perhaps a family gathering or late summer picnic. Popcorn. That familiar yellow or white color. So, when someone hands you a rainbow-hued ear, so vibrant and beautiful that you question its natural origins and edibility, it has a way of completely blindsiding you, throwing off any pre-conceived notions of what corn should be and what it should look like.

Enter the ‘Glass Gem’. Never before have I felt so humbled by corn, so in awe, as I run my fingers along the rows of dried kernels, admiring the deep purples, the golden ambers, the pink and the blue. Indeed, from this humble ear sprouted the desire to learn the origins of this incredible plant. To know the story of these magic seeds and how they came to be, sitting prettily in my hand, wanting to feel the cool smoothness of the kernels along the cob. Caring for it. How does it like its soil? How much water is ideal? Where can I get some?! I NEED that corn!!

… And thus it starts. The ‘gateway’ corn.

What is now known as ‘Glass Gem’ or ‘Carl’s Glass Gem’ started with Carl Barnes, a collector of corn with half Cherokee, half Scotch-Irish ancestry. “As a youth, Carl began to seek out his Cherokee roots, exploring the knowledge of his own ancestors and of Native American traditions in general, by learning from his grandfather. Much of this quest centered on the ceremonies surrounding planting, harvesting, and honoring seeds,” says Greg Schoen — a student of Carl Barnes and successor of Barnes’ work on the ‘Glass Gem’ corn — in his article The Origins and Journey of ‘Carl’s Glass Gems’ Rainbow Corn.

Barnes worked with crossing many types of older corn varieties and noticed that traditional expressions of the corn which had been “lost” over time began to re-emerge in his work, the hidden genes becoming prominent once again. He worked to reintroduce these ancient corn lines to the elders of the tribes in Oklahoma, and “this helped their people in reclaiming their cultural identities. The corn is, to them, literally the same as their bloodline, their language, and their sense of who they are,” says Schoen. Some of the ‘rainbow corn’ that Barnes had been working with was a cross of Osage corns and Pawnee miniature corns, with a shorter ear and more pastel colors. As the friendship between Barnes and Schoen grew, Barnes gifted Schoen with a handful of the corn kernels to grow himself. Schoen remarks, “I was honored and grateful to receive it … at that moment it came to me loud and clear: ‘This seed is going to change things.’”

Schoen went on to grow the rainbow corn on land in Santa Clara Canyon, New Mexico, where he encouraged additional crossings between the rainbow corn and vigorous Southwestern strains because he felt that the “new blood” from the field corns would strengthen the rainbow corn’s gene pool. The result was incredibly vibrant kernels on a broader, bigger cob. As he distributed photos of the corn, he used various names, but ‘Glass Gem’ was the one that stuck.

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