We are finding our way back home—“the seed remembers"
November 28, 2019 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Like many heirloom treasures, Glass Gem corn has a name, a place, and a story. Its origin traces back to Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer living in Oklahoma. Barnes had an uncanny knack for corn breeding. More specifically, he excelled at selecting and saving seed from those cobs that exhibited vivid, translucent colors. (Native Seeds blog) Barnes passed some seeds to Greg Schoen in 1995, and Shoen moved to New Mexico where he crossbred the corn with Pueblo popcorn, then passed some on to Belle Starr and Bill McDorman in Arizona, where they planted some with the Seeds Trust and posted photos to Facebook in 2010. About two years later, pictures went viral (ABC News), and they're popping up again as the poster child for the return to heirloom seeds (NPR).

Come For the Beautiful "Glass Gem" Corn; Stay for a Dose of Genetics (Sarah Zhang for Discover Magazine, May 15, 2012)
Then last week, the photos of the gem-like corn got picked up on the internet and went viral. Good luck trying to get your hands on any seeds now... But kernel color is a fascinating---dare we say, colorful---topic in the annals of genetics research. For one, why are there so many vibrant colors in a single ear of corn? You don't usually see flowers of different colors on a single tree. Each kernel is actually a different corn plant (or the seed of one) with a unique mix of genes inherited from its parents. That's why counting up kernels of different colors in the more familiar purple and yellow corn cobs is a common way of teaching how pigment genes are inherited in Mendelian genetics (PDF; archived copy of originally linked material).

Kernel color has also been used to unravel an odd phenomenon in non-Mendelian inheritance: transposons, or jumping genes. Some types of corn have kernels mottled or streaked with a second color, which means some of its cells are producing a particular pigment but others are not. Transposons (Nature Education ) are stretches of DNA that jump from place to place in the genome, and landing in the middle of a pigment gene would alter the color of that cell. Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize for her discovery of transposons.
How to Grow, Harvest, Dry, and Cook Beautiful Glass Gem Corn (Kate P. for Den Garden, updated on September 12, 2019)
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Native Seeds has many heritage and heirloom arid-adapted crop seeds for sale, including Glass Gems. The title of this post is truncated from a line in their Fall 2012 newsletter (PDF):
The emergence of a breathtaking heirloom variety like Glass Gem reveals that the art and magic of seed saving lives on. It reminds us that we can return to this age-old practice and restore beauty, wonder, and abundance to our world. Indeed, this renaissance is already underway, as new seed libraries take root around the country empowering communities to rejoin the ancient seed saving ritual. We are finding our way back home—and in the words of Carl Barnes, “the seed remembers.”
posted by filthy light thief at 2:48 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another type of corn that's hard to lay your hands on as not-registered to a tribe has been Iroquois white. 2 closed farms and one dead guy plus a handful of people who had different levels of 'not of the tribe - go away' one can find a person who was willing to sell some kernels.

Glass gem tends to produce a lot of purple and not many that are the ones you see in the pictures. And while a claim is made they are workable as popcorn, they are not.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:51 PM on November 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

rough ashlar, thanks for the info. Sounds like it's more of a decorative corn, and maybe a flour corn?
posted by filthy light thief at 3:00 PM on November 28, 2019

That really is breathtakingly beautiful corn.
posted by medusa at 3:44 PM on November 28, 2019

I grew this corn two years ago! I got the seeds and was very skeptical that I would get results, but it was exactly as advertised. It's really, really beautiful thing to look at the ears in the light - just like a stained glass window. Each ear was a completely different collection of colors, some dominated by ruby or purple or emerald. When they dry out the colors mellow quite a bit, but you can make some entirely mediocre popcorn.

I grew a different variety this year because my priority is to use the little space I have to supplement our diets. I switched to something a little tastier. But as a novelty, the glass gem corn really lives up to its name.
posted by Alison at 4:09 PM on November 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

I love growing heirloom tomato and squashes. Some of the new varieties can be amazing. Grow some on your own and enjoy spectacular successes and failures! Baker Creek carries Glass Gem and other fun varieties. Their December catalog is really one thing to look forward to in the depths of winter. Tomatoes are a great way to play around with heirloom varieties. “Heirloom” doesn’t always mean an old strain, but rather a non-hybrid who’s harvested seeds will generally grow true.

One winner this year was the Dark Galaxy tomato. A recent development but it was both prolific and really delicious. While seeds for many of these fruits and veggies can be pricey you can save and trade seeds and be set for a long time. One tomato will give you hundreds of viable seeds.
posted by misterpatrick at 5:08 PM on November 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

Recovery of a lost variety of corn.
posted by billm at 5:48 PM on November 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

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