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Celt's Garden - Bellingham Blue Sweet Corn

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.





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Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 21, 2011 at 5:04pm

Hi Walter, the red color of the all red ears in flour corn is the pericarp color. The pericarp is part of the mother plant, uninfluenced by pollination. When you grow out the kernels, the ears might be red and they might not. 

The stripes are from gene jumping. Transposons inactivate the color at some points, causing the stripes. 

As for heirloom corn countering the degradation from GMO drift, that's a very interesting question. Heirloom corn was selected over a long period to give some yield even in a bad year. GMO corn is designed to give excellent yields with all the conditions right. Even the advocates of GMO corn say that it does badly in response to the typical abuse of subsistence farming. 

I'm working on I'd say to go ahead and mix it up next year. 

Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 21, 2011 at 10:19am

Krista, sure, just like that, what you said. There are dozens of relevant corn genes and genes that turn on or off other genes, and the wide cross shuffles then up, just like dropping a deck of cards on the floor. The first pass of selection is to choose sturdy, good looking plants to save seed from. The pros call that selecting for a good frame. The next selection step is to collect ears with a tight husk wrapping and good pollination. There are two naturally occurring types of sweet kernels. The old one is sweet (su), recognizable by the way the kernel collapses in flat planes as it dries, and the new one is sugary enhanced (se), recognizable by the small parallel crinkles in the top of the drying kernel. Su corn inspired the directions to put the pot on to boil and then go out and pick the corn. Se will actually stay sweet long enough to buy the ears at the Farmer's Market and then take them home and put the kettle on for dinner. Neither will stay sweet long enough for the industrial agriculture model, hence the development of sweet corn with the shrunken (sh2) gene, which we don't have to worry about since not only does it taste like high fructose corn syrup instead of corn, it's highly unstable and useless for breeding open pollinated sweet corn. 


A wide cross between an open pollinated sweet corn and a flour corn will typically have su, se and floury kernels. By picking su and se kernels from ears you like, you can move the corn in the desired direction. Larger ears, all blue, etc. Or pick out floury kernels to start developing a Whatcom Blue Flour corn that doesn't suffer miserably in our climate like Hopi Blue. 


The kicker with all subsequent courses of action is space (and time and attention and water.) The next step is to grow out a lot of something that looks promising from the wide cross and select again, putting us well on the way to a stabilized variety.  


Comment by Krista Rome on November 20, 2011 at 10:37pm

Celt: awesome information, thank you for providing it and doing the research. I appreciated the chance to learn more about what you were really doing out there with that blue corn. :) I am still a little baffled about crossing sweet and flour corn, if you take the wrinkled kernels, you'd get the sweetness, but are you thinking that you could also be getting good other traits from the non-sweets, like productivity, larger cob size, and such while preserving the sweet quality?

Comment by Shannon Maris on November 6, 2011 at 11:18pm

The elder fellow who brought his Bellingham Blue corn the first annual seed swap is Gene Montague. He lives in the lower Alabama hill and loves to answer questions about gardening!

We are honored that he shared his treasured heirloom corn with us! 

Thanks for the follow up and corn lesson, Celt!

Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 6, 2011 at 6:48pm
Go for it and more power to you. Red corn is complicated stuff. The stalk color gene is different from the genes for red leaves or a red pericarp. They all combine in different ways and other genes affect whether they are expressed or suppressed. Breeding a stabilized red corn is quite the undertaking. Never shy away from a challenge, eh Walter?

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