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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 1, 2001 - Issue 50


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Group Preserves Colorful, Rare Early Strains of Maize

Maureen Gilmer Scripps Howard News Service

I have long been enchanted by maize. Not the civilized yellow ears of the summer barbecue, but the half-wild corns, our colorful legacy of American Indian gardeners.

There is a whole universe of little-known strains. They were perfected over centuries by the Pueblo tribes of the desert Southwest and the Plains tribes that farmed the fertile floodplains of the great Midwestern rivers.

The plant Zea maize, for example, was developed through millennia of breeding by Americans Indians.

An ancestor is a grasslike grain from Mexico that bears little resemblance to modern corn. From there, it traveled north and south from one agricultural tribe to another, each altering the plant to better produce in their local climate and growing sites.

Each of these groups selected dozens of strains and systematically changed them to produce larger, more productive ears. They ate corn fresh as we do in the "milk stage," but most of the crop was dried to store for grinding into cornmeal. The ears were not picked until the plants turned brown.

There is a great deal of interest in these early strains and the valuable genes they contain. Efforts to preserve them are headed by Native Seed/Search of Tucson, Ariz.

The nonprofit group gathers rare corn strains grown by indigenous peoples of the Southwest and Mexico. The problem is that corn seed remains viable for a short time in storage, so the only way to preserve a strain is to keep it in continuous cultivation.

Therefore, Native Seed/ Search encourages cultivation by selling these rare strains to gardeners through their seed catalog. The sales revenues help fund further preservation efforts.

While supermarket Indian corn is multicolored, the native strains are often a single strong color that can be stunning for decoration.

For example, Hopi Blue really does bear blue kernels used to make ceremonial piki bread.

Tarahumara Apachito bears light and dark pink kernels from the Sonoran Desert. Together, they are a stunning combination as a table arrangement or door hanging.

The Native Seed/Search catalog offers 71 named heirloom varieties of flour, flint, sweet and popcorn. They also sell seed of the rare ancestor of corn, Teosinte, which is believed to have originated in Oaxaca, Mexico, millennia ago.

One way to obtain these colored corns is to grow them yourself. Native strains are easy to cultivate and will withstand more neglect and less water than the highly bred sweet corn.

To ensure thorough pollination, grow in dense blocks, with each block separated to keep them pure within your garden. It's also traditional to grow green beans underneath the stalks for an edible crop that also adds a bonus of soil nitrogen to the corn.

We admire Indian corn in the fall and rarely remember to plant it in the summer garden.

Information on the native corn is available on the Web at:

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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