By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, March 10, 2011; T10
They're as beautiful as jewels and often just as precious and rare. The seeds of Indian corn, lined up in rows on their cobs, explode with every known color in fanciful combinations. This variability led geneticist Barbara McClintock to the far-reaching discovery that genes are not static, that controlling elements called transposons can jump from one gene to another, turning genetic traits off or on. Her work, published in 1950, eventually earned her a Nobel Prize in medicine.
To us, these seed mosaics seem like wondrous but random creations. In fact, they encapsulate corn's history. Thought to have been developed from a plant called teosinte in ancient Mesoamerica, corn became the great foundation food crop of the Western Hemisphere. Millennia of planting, harvesting and selecting by indigenous growers gave it the strength of diversity - that is, the ability to survive by drawing on large numbers of well-adapted varieties.
Corn's colors, which signal chemical agents that the ears produce for their survival, are like a secret code or a text that documents their evolution and their persistence. They are not embellishments upon what we regard as typical corn. Rather, those yellow or white ears we slather with butter result from the elimination of chance, randomness and power of adaptation. Their parental kernels were born in laboratories that produce proprietary, patented seeds.
Modern hybrid corn, which cannot even be saved for planting, might seem like a David against this Goliath of history. But in fact, much of it has been engineered to accept herbicide with its Roundup Ready gene, which could potentially infect every treasured open-pollinated variety and snuff out its purity. And in nature, diversity is backup. Diversity is what saves you if the few hybrids that dominate world commerce meet an unfortunate fate.
You'll find Indian corn in many seed catalogues on the pages marked "ornamental corn." Companies that carry a well-focused selection, such as Seed Savers Exchange,Baker Creek, Victory Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, High Mowing Organic Seeds and Fedco, are drawing shoppers to these corns' culinary uses: for making cornmeal, corn flour and hominy, or for roasting. Some are noted for their adaptations to regions of our country, such as Bloody Butcher from Virginia, Abenaki Calais Flint from Vermont, Ohio Blue Clarage, Nothstine Dent from Michigan, Mandan Bride from North Dakota and Blue Hopi from Arizona.
But many people still regard these ears as nothing more than fall decorations to tack up on your door. Harris Seeds says this about its Mini Blue Popcorn: "The colonial blue color of these ears makes them popular for 'country decorating.' "
I've got nothing against country decorating. But this year I'll nail a few ears to the door as a way of showing my colors and to indicate, in a small way, what side of history I'm on.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer." 6More online Read more about growing your own food at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens .