Heirloom Popcorn Varieties

Here are profiles on three varieties of heirloom popcorn: ‘Dakota Black,’ ‘Strawberry,’ and ‘Glass Gem.’

  • "Strawberry" popcorn is a striking plant that has long been a favorite of market gardeners and home growers.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman

Popcorns are among the most ancient members of the maize family. Some scholars believe the first domesticated corn was indeed a popcorn type, although it may not have been consumed that way.

With such deep roots, there have been thousands of types of popcorn developed through the millennia. Thanks to seed-saving enthusiasts and farmer-breeders, we still have a number of interesting old and old-new popcorns to grow. Here are three:

'Dakota Black' (95-105 days; rows). A striking popping corn with pointed kernels so dark purple they appear nearly black, it’s a fairly recent addition to the open-pollinated popcorn world. This variety has been specifically selected for improved stand-ability—the kernels pop best when ears are allowed to dry down completely in the field. When popped, 'Dakota Black' yields a rich, white puff with a black hull, and it produces a single 6-to-8-inch, 15-row ear on 4-to-6-foot stalks. Your family and friends will love it.

'Strawberry' (85-100 days; rows).
A beautiful, red-hulled popcorn, it makes a great addition to fall decorations and pops into a tasty treat. The diminutive 2-to-4-inch long ears are born on stalks that may vary from 1 to 4 feet in height—up to four ears per stalk is not uncommon. 'Strawberry' is popular with market gardeners and for home use; some growers also enjoy a commercial market for shelled kernels. For best popping, pick dried ears and shell as needed.

'Glass Gem' (90 days; rows).
A colorful phenomenon to say the least, this beautiful flint corn was developed by Carl Barnes, an Oklahoma farmer of Cherokee descent. With its surreal colors and glass-like translucency, it’s as much a pleasure to look at as it is to eat. Yet, this corn is far from a novelty, popping remarkably well for a delicious snack, and it can be ground to make a tasty cornmeal. Its limited availability and popularity also make it valuable as a seed crop. Expect up to 6 ears of varying lengths on stalks that reach 10 feet in some conditions. As a drought-resistant variety, irrigate sparingly to avoid lodging.

Oscar H. Will III is the Editor in Chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

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