Mother Earth Gardener

The Preservation of Strawberry Corn

The story of this extremely beautiful rose-to-raspberry-colored corn is about as tangled as any plant genealogy can get. While I have been able to sort out some of the history, let it be said that we have no Tutelo peoples to celebrate the recovery of what was once an important ceremonial plant in their culture. The last Tutelo died in the 19th century, so the corn lingered on in the hands of other native peoples who cared for it and nurtured its story, an orphan among orphans.

I have no idea how the corn received its intriguing name, although I suspect it may have been associated at one time with a festival that occurred about the time wild strawberries ripened. Furthermore, while the ultimate task of saving the strawberry corn fell mostly to me, I was not the original keeper of the seed. Bringing it back from near extinction was the product of many diligent hands. But first, who were the Tutelos?

The Tutelos

The Tutelos were an Eastern Siouan tribe who once inhabited the piedmont of Virginia and North Carolina, then later, parts of Western Maryland. Due to European encroachments, they moved many times and by the 1740s were living at Shamokin on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. They then removed to New York State to live among the Iroquois. Their main village was destroyed in 1779 during the Sullivan Expedition, and this appears to have effectively broken down their cultural identity, because after that the Tutelos intermarried with other Iroquois, especially the Senecas. 

The Strawberry Festival Corn was taken north during all of these displacements and was adopted by some Senecas as part of their food culture. It is not clear who was growing the corn in the 19th century, but among the Cornplanter Senecas in Warren County, PA, a group living along the Allegheny River, some families maintained the variety. A Cornplanter Seneca whose Indian name was Little Blacksnake appears to have been the last keeper of the seed. 

The Cornplanter Tract had been established in 1796 and was supposed to have been deeded to these people in perpetuity, but the Army Corps of Engineers decided in the 1960s to erect the Kinzua Dam which flooded the Indian lands in 1965 and forced them to relocate. Most of those people moved to the Allegheny Reservation in New York. Quaker Indian rights activist Theodore Brinton Hetzel (1906-1990), a member of the Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, worked with the Cornplanter Senecas in an attempt to prevent the dam. When those lawsuits failed, he helped raise money to cover the cost of relocation.  

This relocation effectively ended the historical agricultural traditions of the Cornplanter Senecas, and Theodore Hetzel found himself heir to a large collection of seeds that had belonged to Little Blacksnake and other people in that group. Due to his tireless work on behalf of the Indians, he was adopted by the Seneca Wolf Clan in 1964 and by the Tuscaroras in 1972. It was from Ted Hetzel that I acquired the Cornplanter seeds because he did not have a garden large enough to maintain so many rare Native American plants. This included a number of beans as well as a partial cornbraid of Tutelo Strawberry Corn and a few ears of a calico hominy corn (short-ear dent) with green and white kernels. Much of the corn had deteriorated, but I froze it hoping that I could revive it at a later time when I could tackle it under more ideal conditions.

Ted Hetzel was a distant cousin of mine through the Brintons and we were both members of Haverford Friends Meeting, so our mutual interests in Native American agriculture went back many, many years. Imagine his thrill in 1988 when he saw a small stand of Tutelo corn in my garden and the subsequent shock when he came back to photograph it and found it fully destroyed by raccoons. 

Tutelo Strawberry Corn

Tutelo Strawberry Corn is special. It only grows 4 to 6 feet tall with one or two cobs no more than 20 inches from the ground; it’s highly vulnerable to pests in search of snacks. The sap of the plant itself is almost like sugarcane, which may explain why the mature corn, when ground for hominy or mush, tastes as though it has been sweetened with maple syrup. This sweetness is something wildlife relishes, thus part of the stress of getting the corn back into production has been my ongoing war against crafty raccoons and bionic squirrels. The seed situation was so bad that in 1998 I was reduced to 58 plants, and not all of the cobs survived the attacks. 

In 2001, I set out to tediously hand-pollinate what remaining plants I was able to get in the ground, which brought my seed count up to where I wanted it. I then froze the crop for safekeeping, realizing I needed a safer place than my garden to grow it. But coyotes showed up, so the raccoon problem gradually went away. As part of the gardening workshops I was holding in 2010, we planted 21 hills of Strawberry Corn and they ripened to perfection. 

The day before my class planned to harvest the corn, my property was invaded by Australian Tree Rats (tropical escapees from Port of Philadelphia shipyards most likely) and they not only stripped the corn from the cobs in one night, they also devoured all the ripening peas, apples, grapes, figs, cornelian cherries, pears, pawpaws, tomatoes, and whatever else they could reach (they climb trees like squirrels so nothing is safe). The only clean thing about Australian Tree Rats is that they feed on fruit rather than refuse like common rats. They have no fear of humans and will literally snatch food right out of your hands. However, the winter kills them because there is nothing to eat, so Nature settled the score for me later in the year. But the Strawberry Corn was now very much in danger of extinction. 

Left with one frozen container of seed, I was feeling quite desperate until one of the attendees in my workshop volunteered his highly secluded farm as the site for a 2011 growout. Jeff Warden of Mill Hollow Farm, a new organic farm near Newtown Square, Pa., deserves a gold medal in this case because we managed to force 600 seedlings and then hand plant them on a gentle hillside surrounded not only by a wall of electric fences, but patrolled 24/7 by several large human-friendly dogs that have developed a connoisseur’s eye for groundhogs, raccoons and anything else that might be tempted to wander onto the property. Because of Jeff, the 2011 season produced enough seed corn so that in 2012 we plan to get everything up to commercial scale.  

This has been my hope all along: get these rare corns into production so that Americans can savor the taste of real food again. Best of all, Mill Hollow Farm is located probably 20 or 30 miles from any kind of GMO crops so we can grow open-pollinated heirloom corn without worrying about genetic pollution. While it looks as though Tutelo Strawberry Corn may turn into a success story, the equally beautiful calico corn that also came from the Cornplanter Senecas has been lost. All the more reason that we should double our efforts through creative partnerships to save and propagate the priceless heirlooms we still have. 

  • Published on Jun 1, 2012
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