Corn, you may think, isn’t particularly exciting. Nor is beautiful the first word to come to mind when the crop is discussed. But the wide array of vibrant colors displayed by the Glass Gem corn variety could change that perception.

Glass Gem corn has a rich history; originally developed from ancient corn of Indigenous people of North America and selectively bred for its bright coloring, the story of Glass Gem also includes social media fame. And it all started (or re-started) with a man, Carl Barnes, looking to connect with his Cherokee heritage through a love of cultivating corn. 

Long before Glass Gem, corn has had a long history in the United States. It was a staple crop for hundreds of years for many of the Native tribes and was used both for food and for cultural and religious rituals, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. The European settlers benefited from Native people’s proficiency with corn. 

When settlers migrated into the Great Plains, many brought corn culture as part of their baggage, says the EOHC. And settlers, as well as relocated Indigenous tribes, brought corn to Oklahoma.

In more recent years, corn has become less of a staple for daily life. But Carl Barnes still held the passion. He recognized the value of the crop from a very practical perspective.

“One corn seed can develop anywhere from 200 to 640 seeds,” Barnes said in a Sapulpa Herald article in 1993. “If you save that seed and plant it, then you’ve got 640 ears the next year. If you ate two a day, you could live off corn for a year, if you had a little beans and squash to go with them.”

Barnes, who counted Cherokee heritage from both parents, also provided corn to Native tribes for ceremonies, the article explained. He worked to locate varieties that were thought to be extinct.

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“In growing these older corn varieties, Barnes was able to isolate ancestral types that had been lost to Native American tribes when they were relocated to what is now Oklahoma in the 1800s,” wrote Dina Spector in 2018 for a Business Insider article.

Barnes, who died in 2016, recognized how attractive many of these corn varieties were and began to selectively breed for the vibrant colors. 

“A mix of Cherokee, Osage and Pawnee varieties produced two tiny, multicolored cobs, which he showcased at a native plant gathering,” details an article from NPR’s All Things Considered.

Barnes gave fellow farmer, Greg Schoen, some of the seeds, who further cultivated the beautiful colors, naming a particular pattern Glass Gem. He also passed on several of the seeds to the non-profit conservation group Native Seeds/SEARCH, and thus the seeds became publicly available. When a picture of these made waves on social media in 2012, the corn variety began to gain popularity.

Today, Glass Gem corn can be purchased online, planted and harvested in your own backyard.

Knowing the Difference

Glass Gem corn is a type of flint corn, which means it can be ground into cornmeal or dried and popped. But unlike sweet corn, is not typically eaten off the cob.

Unfortunately, the corn loses its beautiful colors when it is popped, but a search on Pinterest reveals many decoration and craft project ideas for the beautiful ears.