Glass Gem Corn is much more than a pretty picture. The re-discovery of rainbow corn helped restore a precious part of Cherokee heritage to the Native American Tribe. (Photo: Reddit/Cropitekus)
Glass Gem Corn is much more than a pretty picture. The re-discovery of rainbow corn helped restore a precious part of Cherokee heritage to the Native American Tribe. (Photo: Reddit/Cropitekus)

Colorful ears of corn which the Native Americans used to grind into meal or pop for their pleasure… well, you’ve probably seen corn before but not like Glass Gem Corn. That’s because a lot of love and careful selection produced this beautiful rainbow corn and yes, you can grow some yourself! So what’s the story behind this amazing maize? For that we need to take you to the Oklahoma Panhandle for a little quick history about a man who wanted to know more about his heritage and came to be known as ‘White Eagle’ for restoring the legacy of sacred seeds which Native Tribes has long believed were lost.

Hand-picked for your pleasure: The man behind Glass Gem Corn

Carl Barnes developed his unique Glass Gem Corn in 2012. Before he sadly passed away in 2016, Carl received a medal of honor from the Cherokee Nation for his work as ‘Keeper of the Corn’. (Photo: SeedBroadcast Blog)
Carl Barnes developed his unique Glass Gem Corn in 2012. Before he sadly passed away in 2016, Carl received a medal of honor from the Cherokee Nation for his work as ‘Keeper of the Corn’. (Photo: SeedBroadcast Blog)

Born in Oklahoma in 1928, Carl Barnes was a man of Scots-Irish and Cherokee ancestry, and since his grandfather began explaining to him about his Native American side at 5 years of age Carl was hooked. He wanted to know more about his heritage and the traditions behind it. One of the traditions which Carl became aware of had to do with Cherokee Corn.

In Deborah Duvall’s ‘An Oral History of the Tahlequah and the Cherokee Nation’ it states that Carl used to relate a story stating that several hundred years ago Cherokee corn used to used to bear sacred symbols, growing patterns in the kernels which would show such shapes as a dove, a buffalo, or even an eagle near the top colored portions of the kernel. The story also said that the symbols disappeared with the coming of the white man but it was promised that one day they would return.

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Carl had noticed when he was growing up that the cornfields were dotted with older varieties of maize and some of them bore fantastic coloration. He began cultivating these over the years and in the 1980’s he noticed that a white eagle pattern was emerging in the top kernels of some of ears of corn. This he would take as his ‘spiritual name’ as he continued on his quest to restore the native Cherokee corn.

Restoring what was lost

When the Cherokee were forcibly relocated during the 1830’s the impact to their culture was significant to say the very least. By 2006 it was noted that prior to the ‘Trail of Tears’ or even before 1492, a single crop which had been cultivated by the Cherokee could not be found. This was until Pat Gwin, Director the Cherokee Nation Seed bank made the acquaintance of Mr. Barnes.

Amazed with Carl’s work, Pat would take seeds from the newly-restored corn back to add to the seed bank, reclaiming the sacred corn and an important piece of the tribe’s heritage. Carl received a medal of honor from the Cherokee Nation for his work as ‘Keeper of the Corn’.

The legacy lives on

In 2012 Carl would develop his unique rainbow-hued corn which he called ‘Glass Gem corn’ and it’s that beautiful variety that you keep seeing popping up all over the internet. It is something that he developed very slowly, by crossbreeding Osage ‘Greyhorse’ red corn along with a number of Pawnee miniature corns.

So, is it edible? Well, yes, but you can’t serve it up ‘corn on the cob’ style. Glass Gem corn is what you would call a ‘flint’ corn and this means that it is meant to be ground into meal or to have its kernels dried to produce seeds that can color-up the kitchen until you are ready to make popcorn.

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While he passed away in 2016, his legacy is definitely showing signs that it will remain for a very, very long time. Samples have been sent around the world and so places like Kenya, India, and Israel are now growing their very own. With the popularity of the viral pics of the Glass Gem corn we imagine that anywhere it CAN grow it WILL BE growing.

Thus the legend lives on. Now that the eagle has returned, who knows what will happen next? Perhaps the dove and the buffalo will make an appearance as well, just like the old story promised… in the sacred ears of Cherokee corn planted all across the world.

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