Grow Versatile, Edible Indian Corn

A lot of people don’t realize you can eat Indian corn. They think it’s just pretty. One edible Indian corn variety really stands apart. You could use Painted Mountain Corn for fall decoration, and some seed catalogs probably list it as ornamental – but it has far more value. Created to produce a food crop where corn won’t grow, Painted Mountain is more of a multi-use harvest with excellent nutritional benefits for humans and animals. It’s also a fast-growing, fairly adaptive crop that does well in drought, and poor to marginal soils.

People who grow Painted Mountain as an edible Indian corn say it’s as versatile as it is diverse in heritage. The first surprise was the report that it’s got great flavor boiled, steamed, grilled, or roasted. Seed rating comments are a great place to gather more info about different veggies. In one, the gardener left the tip that it’s best eaten fresh at the early stage of ear maturity. At this point it will have tender white kernels. Once the color starts coming on, it’s too starchy to be really enjoyable. Just don’t expect it to be super sweet. This is true corn flavor, somewhat sweet, but not sugary. You should be able to preserve it through canning or freezing at this point too.

Bred for soft starches, Painted Mountain is classed as a flour corn. The dried kernels make excellent cornmeal and corn flour that’s naturally enriched with antioxidants not found in yellow corn products. Those dark red, blue, purple, and black kernels are loaded with vitamins and protein too. The darkest ones having a higher anthocyanin content than blueberries. It’s reported that Painted Mountain Corn makes excellent nixmatal for homemade tortillas, tamales, and other foods made from masa. People who grow it also use their dried grain to whip up tasty cornbread, hominy or grits, and even polenta. Some say it’s great popping and parching corn, others report it wouldn’t pop. (Failure to pop might be due to prolonged drought. A tiny bit of moisture sealed inside the dry kernel is needed to make it happen.)

Last, but not least, it’s perfect for feeding chickens and livestock. This edible Indian corn was bred to have soft starches and a protein content of 13%. According to the FAO, feed corn (maize) should have a protein content of 8-11%. The agricultural industry in Canada and beef guidelines in the US put the desired crude protein content at 10.3-10.8%. So, there’s plenty of sound nutrition in Painted Mountain to meet those requirements.

Grow Your Own: Painted Mountain Corn

Live for Pizza grows Painted Mountain to make homemade polenta.

The story of Dave Christensen’s dedication to creating a corn that will feed people living in places that most cereal grains are difficult to impossible to grow is fascinating. He has now invested almost 40 years of his life into breeding Painted Mountain Corn. The genetics of this hand-crossed variety include the best traits from some 70 strains collected from Indian tribes and homesteads. Some of those heritage grains are now extinct, but their rugged attributes live on in this corn. Devoting this many years into breeding an edible Indian Corn might leave some people wondering about his chosen path. Dave’s mission was simple. He wanted to develop a reliable food crop that would grow in the harshest climates.

It began with overcoming the cold, blustery climate of Montana where he lives. Late frosts are inevitable at an elevation of 5000 feet. Summer is super short, and dry. The soil isn’t always the greatest either. Once he succeeded in bringing in a harvest, Dave’s work wasn’t over. He kept breeding, selecting the best traits and carrying them into the next year’s crop. During all of this, he decided that a corn seed like this could be a giant step toward alleviating world hunger. Montana isn’t the only place that the climate doesn’t allow for growing highly nutritious grains.

He took his seed to people in the northern reaches of North Korea. It grew and delivered a harvest the first year. Seed sent to brutally cold Siberia also performed well. And on the opposite end of challenging climates for reliably growing food – South Africa. Dave’s Painted Mountain is right at home in the hot, dry climate there too. Gardeners in the US in the Colorado Rockies, Washington State, Idaho, and northern Minnesota also report that it grows well. One gardener, hospitalized shortly after planting, was unable to return to his plot until fall. After a summer with almost no rain at all, he wasn’t expecting to find anything left growing. Lo and behold, enough of those stalks made it through, delivering enough cobs to provide seed for the next year’s planting.

That’s a tough crop. It’s doing great in zones 3-7 in the United States. And South Africa? That covers US zones 8-11. And it’s available in Australia now too, making it’s way there from Africa. Maturity ranges from 100 days in northern Minnesota to around 70 days in southern Idaho.

Painted Mountain is shorter than most varieties, reaching 4-6 feet at maturity. It’s a colorful crop from start to finish with a variety of hues on the stalks, leaves, tassles, pollen, silk, and husks. The ears are narrow, it needs to concentrate all its energy on finishing in less time than fat ears with more rows of kernels. Some growers of Painted Mountain Corn say that the first year’s harvest wasn’t the greatest. But like landrace grains, it appears to acclimate the new seed harvest to the place, delivering much better results in year 2 from saved seed.

With shallower roots that tall corn varieties, it’s a candidate for raised beds and large container gardens. It withstands late frosts and hail. In a long summer growing zone, this edible Indian corn might make staggered planting for successive harvests possible. Use the early sowing for fresh eating and preserving, and the later crop for dried corn products and next year’s seed.

One crop that offers you so many uses. How cool is that? And every ear you harvest is uniquely beautiful. They say it’s like opening a pile of presents, making the task more like fun than work.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.