If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you’ve heard me say this before, but I have to say it again: I cannot believe that actual edible food grows right out of the ground! And it’s so cool that even after many years of gardening I still discover new things to try. Vegetables come in so many varieties, colors, shapes, and flavors I’m not sure a person could grow them all in one lifetime. I mean, did you know there are black tomatoes? White eggplant? Purple carrots? Just pick up an heirloom seed catalog and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The options are endless and irresistible!
Last spring I was especially enchanted by a photo that was circulating online. There was some question amongst gardening folk as to whether it was real or photoshopped (yes, this happens – I don’t care how cool blue strawberries look, don’t buy seeds from China on Ebay). It turned out to be an heirloom popping corn bred by a man named Carl Barnes to produce an array of gemstone-colored kernels on each cob. It’s a great story and it’s told so well over at Native Seeds that I don’t want to tarnish it with a sloppy condensed version so read their blog post here.
I was enamored with this aptly-named Glass Gem corn but, despite the hullabaloo, I didn’t plan to grow it. For one thing, corn needs to be planted in a 3′ x 3′ block for decent pollination and my sunny space is limited. It also likes a lot of water, a sticking point in drought-ridden San Diego. On top of that I didn’t want to waste energy on ornamentals, and I considered it ornamental because who on earth grows popcorn? We all know that popcorn comes from the store.
But when a local gardener posted an offer for seeds as a fundraiser for his son’s school I finally caved. It would have been uncharitable not to, right? I planted a sunny block by my north fence that I could see from our dining table. It was a perfect spot that I hoped would serve a dual purpose – corn would be happy there, so happy that it would grow tall enough to block the view of our neighbor’s backside as she climbed in and out of her jacuzzi. I like our neighbor a lot but this was totally worth the effort and the extra water, trust me.
I’d heard a tip about soaking corn seeds in a jar of water for 24 hours before planting and decided to try it. It worked – the little sprouts were up within a week! Two weeks later I discovered the ones I left in the jar were also sprouting so of course I had to plant those somewhere too. I found another sunny space along the street that would potentially block my neighbor to the west. Corn is great!
Unfortunately for me and other impatient gardeners, popping corns are supposed to dry on the stalk. This means from planting to picking takes four to six months. Waiting to pick my first ears was agony! Finally, when I could no longer resist, I picked the two that looked the most dry. With extremely low expectations I hesitantly pulled back the dried husks and was rewarded with a rainbow of colorful kernels sparkling like gemstones in the sun. They may have been tiny and poorly pollinated but to me they were perfect.
Curiosity satisfied, I let the rest of the cobs dry on the stalks then picked, shucked and dried them some more. It was really interesting to see how corn from different parts of the yard looked totally different from each other. The cobs from the north fence ranged from red to yellow to deep purple to light pink,
while those from the west offered a more subdued range of pale blue, white, yellow and lavender.
So here I had my first sparkly harvest of Glass Gem Corn and a lovely collection of seeds. My plan was to trade the seeds. It honestly never crossed my mind to pop them until recently when, on a trip to Petaluma I visited Gardener Mecca, a.k.a. Baker Creek’s west coast outlet The Seed Bank. There I bought a bag of beautiful red popping corn from Rancho Gordo, a very cool Napa company specializing in specialty foods.
I had no clue how to make popcorn on the stove but thankfully the magical interwebs led me to BakedBree.com, the stunning food blog of Bree Hester. There I found simple instructions promising “perfect stovetop popcorn.” I followed her method exactly using coconut oil and a 2 quart saucepan. It was so easy! And fun! Five minutes later I had a pile of popcorn in front of me (with none of those nasty microwave popcorn chemicals).
After many bowls of chewy, flavorful popcorn I was starting to think about ordering some more when *ding* it hit me. “Hey,” I mused to myself, “I have a crapload of organically grown heirloom popcorn!” I have to admit I was hesitant to eat it. Up to this moment I’d been thinking of it as purely ornamental, but when the craving for popcorn hits powerful forces take over.
Even as I tossed those first kernels in the sizzling oil I had doubts. When the first few kernels reached their cracking point, popped, and flew across the kitchen (I had forgotten to put the lid on the pot) I still had doubts. When, having forgotten the lid for the first two minutes, I burnt the whole first batch I really started to question my decision. But soon thereafter I was again rewarded by this beautiful heirloom as my second batch popped to perfection! It was chewy and nutty, delicious with salt and a generous squeeze of fresh lime.
So in the end I have to say that my Glass Gem corn was a success. With all the bad agricultural news out there – Big Ag, GMO’s, Monsanto, Round-Up Ready crops, dying bees, forced seed library closures – it feels good to do my tiny part to preserve these precious heirlooms and share them with other like-minded folk. Beyond that, I would probably grow it again this spring just for the thrill of peeling back that husk and seeing what I got. If I get a nice bowl of popcorn out of the deal, well, that doesn’t hurt.