The Kitchen Garden

Indian Corn

More than just an autumn decoration

By Jan Leitschuh

Frost on the pumpkin? Maybe in a few weeks. Maybe.

Collards? Next month they will be sweeter.

Fall decor? Check. Change of seasons? Yes, please!

After surviving the sultry swelter that is a Sandhills summer, we can get giddy with the first bite of crispness in the air. It might be but a faint promise — just a mere coolness at night and a whole lot of dew in the morning — that drives us to decorate our households and doorsteps with the earthy items of fall in anticipation of cooler weather. We love our orange, white and blue pumpkins, rainbow assortments of mums, gourds, leaves, hay bales — and colorful Indian corn, America’s native grain.

You can see Indian corn gracing Sandhills doors and tables, with an autumnal color display to excite heat-dulled senses. It’s a fall decoration that can take us from mid-September through Halloween, then right into the harvest cornucopias of Thanksgiving. The lovely October palette of rusts, purples, golds, reds, steely blues, pinks and browns in nature finds an echo in Indian corn.

It’s not hard to grow, if you are so inclined. If not, grocery stores, Co-op boxes and farmers markets also offer a selection of parti-colored ears with wonderful names like Painted Mountain, Indian Fingers, Calico and Bloody Butcher.

There are many colors and kinds of Indian corn. We are familiar, of course, with modern sweet corn with yellow or white kernels. The sweet corn we devour in summer is wholly different from Indian corn. We took the hard, dry native strains and over time, selectively bred for a tender, modern, juicy ear with an abundance of natural sugars. Sweet corn is also harvested at a juicy point in its life, called the “milk” stage.

Unlike sweet corn, Indian corn, or “flint” corn, has a low water content that, when dried, makes it easy to preserve and store — and display. Some ears of Indian corn are pastel multi-colored, or yellow and rust-red, or grey, white and gold.  Other types are one solid color like a deep mahogany or an eye-catching grey-blue.

The common treatment is to shuck three to five ears to expose the colored kernels, then bind together with wire to make a door hanging. A bright fall-colored bow tops off the display. Others affix their ears to a fall wreath. One can actually make an eye-catching wreath of the cobs, attaching them to a wire frame with the shucks aimed outward in a papery flair. Google “Indian Corn Wreath DIY.” Another wreath alternates 10 ears with the shucks. I’ve also seen baskets of cobs mixed in with gourds and miniature pumpkins as table decorations, or cobs used in florist displays.

The kernel colors are based on genetics. Like puppies, each kernel can have a different “father.”

A single grain of pollen from the tassels at the top of the corn stalk drops onto a “silk,” an elongated stigma on the cob. Many tassels in a field, and many silks, contribute to the genetics of a kernel. Indian corn has widely varied genetics for color, so the eye-catching, multi-colored cobs can result.

As a species, corn — or maize, Zea mays — was domesticated by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, then grown for thousands of years. The plants adapted to unique local conditions, spreading widely throughout the Americas and were often traded. When early explorers carried this new grain back to Europe, it spread rapidly there, too, as a new cereal grain that could thrive in varied climates.

There are many types of what we call Indian corn. The colors and genetics are as diverse as the tribes that grew and saved the seeds. These so-called “land races” are important reservoirs now for unique genetic material for future plant breeding, a veritable gene bank of potentially useful traits. 

Recently in the news we learned of the discovery of an older corn strain with a gene for fixing nitrogen in the soil, as soybeans do, that grows well in poor soil. This is promising, since corn is a nitrogen-hungry crop and nitrogen production is expensive, energy intensive, and its runoff can pollute ground waters. Marry that gene to higher-producing strains, and a revolution in grain production could possibly result.

Can you eat your Indian corn display? That depends.

You can but . . . please . . . not if it has been sprayed with shellac by crafters to preserve the ears — an unlikely prospect if you purchased your corn still in its protective sheath, or corn shuck. It’s possible to grind unsprayed ears, and the resulting flour can be used for masa, tamales or polenta. The Thanksgiving dish “Indian Pudding,” rich with cornmeal, milk, molasses and maple syrup, is another use.

The corn seeds first need to be “popped” from the cob, usually over a bowl or bag. Then the kernels are ground in a coffee grinder or Magic Bullet (guessing here that the stone mortar and pestle doesn’t appeal). A coarse setting on your grinder can give you the makings of fresh grits.

If you do decide to grow some Indian corn at the back of your garden next fall, you don’t have to buy special seeds; you can just shuck some kernels from your favorite ears of Indian corn (again, assuming it’s shellac-free). Store seeds out of the reach of rodents in an airtight bag in a cool, dry area for the winter. The freezer is a good idea.

When the soil warms strongly next spring, plant in rich soil — as a type of grass, corn is nitrogen-hungry. Plant in a block or multiple rows so the corn is easily pollinated by the wind. Single rows give you poor pollination, and the ears will not fill with kernels. Water well, and offer a little fertilizer when the sprouts emerge.

Don’t plant your Indian corn near your sweet corn, because the two will happily cross-pollinate, and your sweet corn will not be very sweet. Keep the plots a minimum of 250 feet apart, or else separate your plantings by two weeks so they don’t tassel at the same time. Allow corn to dry somewhat on the stalk, then harvest in mid-September or so. Bundle the cornstalks for a further fall display.

If you can rodent-proof your Indian corn wreath or display, and you can keep it dry, you can use it again next year. But I tend to complete the seasonal cycle, sharing our pretty bounty at Thanksgiving with the local squirrels, and moving on to Christmas.  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

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