Speaking of hybridization, my friend Nicole L’Or Reggia sent me some ears she grew of what’s called “glass gem corn,” which are gorgeous. I had no idea this stuff existed, though of course I’d seen less variegated “Indian corn” that appears around Halloween. Here are 12 ears: all of them are small: up to about six inches long. Some are highly variegated like a pack of Jelly Belly jelly beans, while others have a dominant color scheme (bottom of the second picture and the third picture).
As the corn dries out, it becomes translucent, making it even more gemlike. The photos below show what my ears will eventually look like (photos are taken from various places, including the Glass Gem Corn Facebook page):
Go here for a gazillion more photos.
Now how are these produced? It’s hard to find much information about Glass Gem corn. It was clearly developed by breeding varieties of corn having different-colored kernels, but beyond that there’s little information about the breeding scheme. There’s a piece at Business Insider, and this from My Modern Met:
Nature often surprises us with the amazing things it produces, and Glass Gem corn is a fantastic instance of when the line between what’s real and fake is blurred. The rainbow-colored kernels resemble brilliantly-hued strands of jewels rather than something you’d find on your plate. They’re all natural, however, and are the result of heirloom-style farming as well as selective planting.
The story behind these special corn cobs started with an Oklahoma-based farmer named Carl Barnes. As an adult, the half-Cherokee Native American began growing older varieties of the crop as a way to reconnect to his roots. In doing this, he isolated heirloom corn seeds that were lost to Native American tribes when, in the 1800s, they were relocated to present-day Oklahoma.
Barnes shared and exchanged the ancient corn seeds with people he had met around the country, while he also selected and planted grains from the more colorful varieties. This is how the dazzling rainbow corn was born, but these weren’t crops that he kept to himself. Thanks to Barnes, fellow farmer Greg Schoen became acquainted with the vegetable in 1994 at a native-plant gathering in Oklahoma. Mesmerized by the colors, Barnes gave Schoen some of the seeds, who then planted the rainbow corn next to traditional yellow varieties. This mixture led to new and exciting hybrids.
Like Barnes, Schoen passed the seeds along to others, one being Bill McDorman. He owned an Arizona company called Seed Trust, and he’s now the Executive Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH. The non-profit conservation organization now sells the seeds online. [JAC: you can buy the seeds online for only $4.95 a packet.]
But beyond that, I see little information, though I’ve done only a cursory survey. I’m hoping a reader with botanical expertise can explain these, but here’s what I know about corn (I hope this is right!):
- Each “kernel” is the result of a separate pollination event, which clearly accounts for the different colors (they come from genetically different pollen and ovules). Corn is wind-pollinated, but is effectively self-incompatible as the tassels (male parts) are physically separated from the ears (female parts). The many different colors surely reflect many different kinds of pollen impinging on each ear. Each “silk” on an ear is a style: the tube through which the pollen will grow to produce a single kernel. Each “cob” involves several hundred fertilization events. I could plant each kernel and, if I plant more than one together, get more ears like these.
- I have no information about the color diversity among ears from the same plant. By all rules of genetics, they should resemble each other more than ears from different plants, since ears of a single plant have a single female genotype.
- Many ears have a dominant “theme” color, like the purple and reddish ears depicted above. That may reflect a female genotype carrying “red” or “purple” genes, or perhaps limited pollination (Nicole grew about a dozen plants), the dominance relationships of some color alleles, or all of the above.
- I know squat about corn genetics, and even less about corn color genetics. To work out how ears like the above are possible, one needs to be able to show that each of the kernels on a given ear reflects the female’s genotype in the ovule (limited to two alleles at each color locus) combined with a substantially larger variety of alleles in the pollen that fertilizes the female. And you’d have to know the dominance relationships as well as the number of genes producing each color.
And that’s where my knowledge stops. Readers who know about corn varieties or corn genetics are invited to weigh in.
Oh, and about its edibility. Apparently it’s not edible like regular corn on the cob, but you can cut the dried kernels off the cob to make popcorn. Then, however, the color disappears. Or I could plant the kernels, though growing space is sparse in my neck of the woods. I’d prefer to let my ears dry out, become gemlike, and then show off the ears as a lovely novelty.