The story begins something like this, "Once upon a time not so very long ago, an Oklahoma farmer named Carl 'White Eagle' Barnes made a discovery". Well, it was actually more of a rediscovery.

The many colors of Zea mays var. indurata

colorful indian corn

(photo: inkknife_2000, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From store windows to door decorations to table centerpieces, Indian corn is everywhere during the fall. But that shouldn't include your dinner plate. There's a very good reason it's called flint corn. It is actually possible to break a tooth if you attempt to eat it fresh off the stalk.

And unlike typical corn on the cob, there's nothing sweet about it. When cooked, it becomes extremely starchy. Most Indian corn is ground to make flour or cornmeal. However, the small pointed kernels are perfect for popping.

Try some red kernel popcorn, grown and harvested in Amish country for a tasty treat.

red kernel popcorn

How does it do that?

Many of us learned the botanical name for corn in elementary school and love the taste of the sweet golden yellow, white, or bi-colored ears. So, how can a rainbow of kernels grow on the same cob?

The Indian corn found in your grocery store is one of several hybrid varieties developed within the last 50 years. They are the result of cross-pollination with plants of only one color. There are also solid colors in various shades of white, blue, ruby red, and black.

One of three types of corn cultivated as a Native American staple food, flint corn is now grown primarily in Central and South America.

native American on a horse at sunset

Easy to grow

Corn is extremely easy to cultivate if you have the space. Proper pollination requires an area of at least 10 square feet. Sow it in the spring. A larger garden will result in a more uniform crop and a better harvest.

It's a showstopper

Glass gem corn is a standout in the garden and fun to grow. Seeds are available at farm supply stores, garden centers, and by mail.

autumn display with pumpkins, leaves and corn

If you plant this variety, pay close attention to the sowing information. When solid-color corn is grown too close to it, the result will be multicolored calico ears. If that's not a concern, grab a fistful of seeds and plant them randomly. Cross-pollination will result in a patchwork of white, red, blue, yellow, and gold kernels.

colorful indian corn

Harvesting for decorative use

If you're growing Indian corn for ornamental purposes, make sure to wait until the husks are no longer green before picking the corn. Let the ears dry for approximately one week. You can store them at room temperature for four to six months. Indian corn can be left natural or sprayed with lacquer to give it a shiny appearance.

If you want to save seeds for next year, select the largest and healthiest kernels from several cobs and store them in a critter-proof metal container.

Here's full cobs of beautiful, colorful corn you can decorate with this fall and plant in the spring for your own crop.

colorful glass gem corn

Heritage corn

Born in Oklahoma in 1928, Carl Barnes spent years working with heritage corn. His efforts resulted in the recovery of seeds sacred to many native tribes, along with the restoration of a significant part of their history and culture.

Carl was of part Cherokee, part Scotch-Irish descent. Born on a homestead in the panhandle of Oklahoma, he spent his childhood there. Rather than leaving the family farm during the Dust Bowl as many did, he remained and made it his home.

As a youth, Carl discovered his Cherokee roots and began exploring the knowledge and traditions of his Native American ancestors. He particularly focused on ceremonies that surrounded planting, harvesting, and honoring seeds. Following his retirement from the Kansas Highway Patrol, he worked for the Cooperative Extension Service while continuing to work the farm with his wife and family.

native American working with corn seeds

(public domain)

During the course of growing older corn varieties that were still being farmed at that time, he began noticing some ancestral types reappearing in his crops. He isolated these and discovered that many of them matched traditional varieties that had been lost to various indigenous tribes. This was particularly true for tribes that were relocated to what would later become Oklahoma.

He reintroduced the tribal elders to specific corn varieties, helping those tribes reclaim their cultural identities. For Native Americans, corn was as important as bloodlines or language. Carl Barnes became known by his Cherokee name, White Eagle.

Through working with seeds, Carl came to believe in the profound nature of corn and its mysterious relationship to humans. This led to a philosophy he repeated often, "The seed remembers". If you garden, you know that to be true.

I stand in a radiant Glory.
My roots in the heart of Mother Earth.
My crown in the clouds of Father Sky.
The Four Winds encircle me in spirals of Love.
One going up, then down,
One going down, then up.
They meet in the Center of Complete Perfection--
The Human Stalk of Corn.

~Carl Barnes

Well done, Carl.

Carl 'White Eagle' Barns and his corn field
(Carl Barnes: Oct. 2, 1935-Sept. 5, 2020; Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from
pastel indian corn

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