Native Village 
Youth and Education News

April 1, 2013

The Story of Glass Gem Corn: Beauty, History, and Hope
Condensed by Native Village

Carl Barnes’ kaleidoscopic corn has become a beacon and inspiring symbol for the global seed-saving revival.

Feast your eyes on Glass Gem corn: a stunning, multi-colored heirloom that's creating lots of buzz. With opalescent kernels glimmering like rare jewels, this is truly mind-blowing maize.







Along with Glass Gem, NativeSeed is conserving and protecting almost 2,000 rare crop varieties in their seed bank.

For the staff at Native Seeds/SEARCH, the explosion of interest in Glass Gem is not surprising. The seed conservation nonprofit has grown and admired this extraordinary corn themselves. Rest assured, this is no Photoshop sham. It is truly as stunning held in your your hand as it is on your computer screen.

Like many heirloom treasures, Glass Gem corn has a name, a place, and a story. Its origin traces back to Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer living in Oklahoma. Barnes had a knack for corn breeding and excelled at selecting and saving seed from cobs that exhibited vivid, translucent colors.

Exactly how many seasons he carefully chose, saved, and replanted these special seeds is unknown. But after many years, his painstaking efforts created a wondrous corn that has  captivated people around the world.

Approaching the end of his life, Barnes gifted his seed collection to Greg Schoen, his corn-breeding protégé. The responsibility of protecting these seeds was not lost on Schoen. In 2010, he searched for a place to store and protect samples of this and other corn varieties. 

Glass Gem is a flint corn used for making flour or as a popping corn. Unlike sweet corn, it is not edible right off the cob. It was likely bred as an ornamental variety.

He found Bill McDorman, owner of Seeds Trust, a small family seed company in Arizona.

Curious about the Glass Gems, McDorman planted a handful of seeds in his garden. The spectacular plants that emerged took him by surprise.

“I was blown away,” said McDorman, who is now Executive Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH.  “No one had ever seen corn like this before.”

The story of Barnes, Schoen, and their remarkable corn is not unusual. For thousands of years, humans have interacted with  plants by choosing and saving seeds. Over time, the plants change and adapt to take on desirable characteristics, such as enhanced color, flavor, disease resistance and hardiness.
This genetic diversity created by our ancestors was shared and handed down across generations. But today, monocropping, GMOs, and hybrid seeds have stripped diversity to a shred of its former abundance.

A study compared seed varieties in the USDA's 1983 seed bank with those in seed catalogs in 1903. The results were alarming:
Varieties on the market 1903 1983
Tomato 408 varieties >80 varieties
Lettuces 497 varieties  36 varieties
Sweet corn  30 varieties 12 varieties

 In just a few more generations, both the time-honored knowledge of seed saving and many irreplaceable seeds may disappear.

All hope is not lost, however. The Glass Gem story reveals that the art and magic of seed saving lives on. As we learned from Carl Barnes, it only takes one person to create a more colorful, diverse and abundant world

one seed at a time.

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