Bellingham Blue corn was given its name by the elder who showed up at the First Annual Bellingham Seed Swap in 2009 and shared the treasure that he had saved in his backyard for decades. It's blue, a deep blue-black, it's small (the ears are 3" - 7" long), and it grows on bushy 4' - 5' plants with 2-3 ears per plant. The blue tastes a bit different from white or yellow sweet corns. Bellingham Blue is early, always a good trait in corn in these parts, and it's open-pollinated, so you can save the seed. It makes a sweet, blue cornmeal that is great in cornbread.
The gift we were given to steward was also suffering from severe inbreeding depression. Corn is wind-pollinated. Pollen grains from the male tassles blow around and land on the silks of the female ear. Each silk leads to a single kernel. To preserve enough generic diversity to keep a corn variety healthy, the experts advise growing 1000 plants and saving seed from the best 200 - 400. That's tricky in a backyard.
Several people tried to grow Bellingham Blue that first year, but it gave them trouble. It was not vigorous. Some of the plants tassled but did not develop ears. Others made an ear but at the wrong time for the tassles. Some of the plants just didn't grow well. The guy who came to the next seed swap, bearing his ears with joy, had crossed it on purpose. He interplanted Bellingham Blue with Golden Bantam, a old open pollinated yellow sweet corn with a similar short maturity. Bingo. The blue was dominant, as was the characteristic lack of uniformity in the ears. The cross looked right but it actually grew well and produced the iconic blue sweet corn.
Meanwhile, we found out what it is. Indeed, Bellingham Blue is part of our Pacific Northwest heritage. In the 1920's, Ira Hooker of Olympia, Washington bred, or possibly adopted, "Sweet Indian", which seems to have been multi-colored. "Hooker's Green" is a selection, ahem, a sweet green. Bellingham Blue is the blue one. I was astonished to hear that when students at Evergreen University wanted some local heritage corn for trials, they got Bellingham Blue from the Cornell University deep freeze. They had trouble with it. Legendary plant breeder Alan Kapuler, who lives in Corvalis, Oregon, grew a short, scrappy blue-black sweet corn for his now-defunct seed company and called it "Hooker's Sweet Indian". Territorial now carries a short sweet corn, also named "Hooker's Sweet Indian", that starts out white, turns pink and then purple and matures to blue-black. Seeds of Change has a similar called one "Hooker's Corn" that doesn't claim to be sweet. They may be crossed with something to come up with reasonably well behaved commercial varieties. Bellingham Blue has smaller ears and is blue at the sweet corn stage.
The blue color comes from the aleurone layer of the kernel. Think of it as a thin sheet of blue cellulose between the starchy endosperm ball and the hard outer pericarp layer. Corn genetics is quite complicated, but blue is white endosperm + blue aleurone + clear pericarp. Yellow endosperm + blue aleurone = green corn.
The professional approach is to lay hands on enough seed to grow out a whole field, hand pollinate to isolate from crosses with other types of corn, and then select for larger ears and more uniformity in size and maturity. I did none of that. Resembles work. Besides, I had seed from only two ears. Instead, I crossed Bellingham Blue again, by planting it next to Golden Bantam, Black Aztec and Celt's Black Sweet, my own unstabilized cross from a prior year (Black Aztec flour corn x the neighbor's sweet corn) and saving the ears from the Bellingham Blue mother plants. The blue color is dominant, although I got an occasional yellow or white kernel. Sweetness in corn is a recessive trait, but it is easy to select for because the sweet kernels are wrinkled. A smooth kernel may be floury or it may carry genes for both, but a wrinkled kernel is sweet. I just separated out the small percentage of smooth kernels. The enthusiastic could grow it out and stabilize the variety, or just grow it and eat it.
I have enough to share. See you at the Fourth Annual Bellingham Seed Swap.
I will be teaching "Urban Gardening in Small Spaces" November 13, 2:00 - 4:00 at Bennett House in North Bellingham. Register through the Whatcom Folk School. Address provided after registration. Learn how to grow lots of fresh food in small spaces, even without your own yard. See you there.