Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Indian Corn

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

With Thanksgiving week upon us, somewhere along the line we are bound to see what we commonly call "Indian Corn" used as a symbol of the harvest. What makes Indian corn special? Does it even have anything to do with Native Americans?

Ask people to describe Indian corn, and most will explain that Indian corn has multiple colors of kernels on the same ear—yellow, white, purple, red, brown and striped or speckled combinations of these colors. And most people will only describe it as being used for decoration rather than a food source.

While this answer is correct, it is limited. Indian corn, by historical definition, was corn that was used by Native Americans as one of their main food sources. Indian corn, or maize, originated thousands of years ago in the region that is now Mexico. Early native peoples began cultivating maize as a food crop, and it spread into North America.

At the time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, maize was a staple crop for the local Native Americans, and a totally new crop for the Pilgrims that were struggling to survive in the New World.

What historians commonly refer to as the "first Thanksgiving" was not called Thanksgiving by those involved. It was a celebration of the harvest that lasted for three days modeled after English harvest festivals that traditionally happened in late September. Historians believe the first Thanksgiving happened somewhere between late September and early November.

Indian corn cultivated by Native Americans was similar to field corn today, but without the high yields and uniformity of modern hybrid field corn. Probably some of it had kernels in colors other than yellow, but a lot of it was probably just yellow.

Corn was probably on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, but not as corn on the cob as some might think. Indian corn would have been grown to maturity, dried, and ground into flour for use in breads and porridges, or the kernels soaked for cooking in soups and stews.

It would have been typical to find corn grown to reflect the Native American legend of the "three sisters". The legend describes three sisters that love each other deeply: corn, squash and beans. They love each other so much they only grow well when they are together. The corn stands straight and tall, the squash rambles over the ground below, and the beans wind their way up the corn stalks.

Today what we call Indian corn is not commonly used for food, but typically is part of our fall decorations. The colorful dried ears come in a rainbow of solid, striped and speckled colors and can last for years. But what you may not know is these colorful ears have also played a role in understanding genetics.

Some Indian corns have mottled or striped kernels that defy simple genetic inheritance explanations. The phenomenon responsible for these curious kernels is called a "jumping gene" or more technically, a transposon. Dr. Barbara McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1983 for her lifelong work in maize genetics that unlocked the secrets of these mobile genetic elements.

Very simply, transposons are genes that move from one location to another within an organism's genetic material. In the case of corn, the transposon is moving into or out of the gene responsible for pigment in the kernel. When the transposon moves into the pigment gene, it disrupts pigment production, the pigment is not produced, and the kernel appears white. When the transposon moves out of the pigment gene, pigment is produced again, and the kernel appears purple, red or brown. The point in development when the transposon is moving in or out of the pigment gene determines whether the kernel appears solidly white or colored, striped or speckled.

Indian corn definitely holds a special place in history, both for its vital role as a food source, but also for its role in scientific research. It's a lot more than just a pretty decoration to hang on our doors or place on our tables during this season of Thanksgiving.

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