One of the things I enjoy about being part of the greater community of garden enthusiasts is the opportunity to meet and interact with others across the country. Last March I attended the Spring Trials – an annual event in which all the new plant introductions are displayed for growers who come from all around the world to order and propagate for future production. At that time, I had a chance to bump into a friend, Dan Heims, president at Terra Nova Nurseries (a professional breeding nursery) located in Portland, Oregon. I was with my friend Shirley Bovshow (catch her as the gardening expert on the Home and Garden Show on the Hallmark Channel for lots of handy gardening tips) when he presented us with a dozen prized kernels of corn. He explained they were very expensive — $5 each – and were the “hottest new item in the edible plant industry”. He had acquired the seeds at a seed conservation group called the Native Seeds Trust and he wanted us to test them out.
Shirley and I divided our little treasure trove in half and parted ways. I have no idea if she ever grew them since her shooting schedule for the Home and Garden show production took much of her time. But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to check out these mysterious seeds – and find out why they were so special.
The problem was how to grow them. With the extreme lack of rain in the last few years, edibles in my area have become difficult to grow due to hoards of invading wildlife suffering from drought-induced starvation. I live in an area particularly hard hit, so I needed to find help growing the corn while my new enclosed growing space was still under construction. I turned to a friend, Lillian, who had safely enclosed cages already built and fully functional. Thus began my great Glass Gem Corn experiment.
I started the seeds at my place in one gallon containers and once they were two inches high, transferred them to fifteen gallon pots in Lillian’s safe enclosure. One of the seedlings grew without any chlorophyll and could not sustain itself for long, but the other five thrived.
In the caged garden, our five plants reached five feet tall despite their limited container space. They set cobs, unmolested by rodents that certainly would have adored the toothsome treats had they been in my exposed garden. The corn needed no special treatment and Lillian handled it the same as all her other vegetables. As the silks began to dry, she was concerned about the proper time to pick the ears. She tested a small cob, slipping it into the microwave to see how it would taste and was surprised when the kernels started to pop. At that time I was not aware that this was to be expected. I needed to learn a little more about these mysterious seeds.
I contacted Dan Heims and followed all the excitement on the Internet where he directed me. Once I understood these the Glass Gem Corn is not a sweet corn – the kind best for eating fresh and the most frequently grown corn in home gardens — I knew Lillian did not need to worry about harvesting at the right time. Indian corn, grown for grinding into flour, or popping corn is dried before use. Corn can be dried either on the stalks or off. In humid areas it can take a long time to dry unless harvested and kept in a special, dry place. In our chaparral the autumn air is drier than root cellars made especially for the purpose, so drying on the stalks is perfect – so long as rodents are denied access.
Glass Gem Corn is considered the most colorful corn ever bred. The multicolored kernels range through the entire rainbow and can look like glass beads – hence the name. Although this is not sweet corn, it is supposed to make a superior flower and exceptionally tasty popcorn. The startling colors make it stand out from other Indian corn varieties used for crafts and decor. In Oklahoma half century ago, a part-Cherokee farmer named Carl Barnes painstakingly cross bred only his most decorative plants until he came up with the Glass Gem line. The corn is a fully natural result of cross-pollination, grown organically and completely free of any engineering. Barnes passed on his seed collection to student and friend, Greg Schoen who continued the breeding. In 2010 Schoen requested the Native Seeds/SEARCH Trust in Arizona store seeds at their carefully controlled storage center. Bill McDorman, then a seedsman at the trust (and now the Executive Director) was curious about the name of these corn seeds and planted some in his own garden so see what would grow. He was amazed at the result and offered the first batch of seeds for sale in 2012. They were immediately snapped up. The seeds Dan had given me were from this first crop. Since then a second, larger crop has been planted and was just harvested. They should be available for purchase anytime now.
Some of the ears sport brilliant colors, others are more muted. Most of them have a wide range of coloring within each cob. There are more excellent photos at the Native Seeds/SEARCH site.
Lillian and I will be popping some of the corn. We didn’t grow enough to produce ample ground flour. But the most colorful ears will offer up some seasonal décor and seed material for next year’s crop. We won’t have enough to share, but — maybe next year? If our great Glass Gem Corn experiment has inspired you to try growing some of your own, check out the original source at http://www.nativeseeds.org/about-us/pressreleases/186-glass-gem-corn-now-available. I have seen seeds for sale on Amazon.com and a couple of other sites, but I cannot guarantee these are the pure Glass Gem variety.
Here’s a video showing the cropping of the corn as it dries on its stalks. There’s been some talk that the colorful claims are a hoax. As you see here, they are not! Peeling back the covering on each ear was as fun as unwrapping holiday presents!