GARDENING : Blue Corn: A Food Fad Lasting for Centuries

Share via

Christopher Columbus took maize--corn--back to Spain from America in 1493 and American Indians showed early settlers how to grow it.

Corn was important to early Central and South American civilizations for many years before Europeans arrived, according to Professor Ray Rothenberger, horticulturist at the University of Missouri.

“The oldest known corn remains were discovered in Mexico and were about 7,000 years old,” he related. “The corn cob was enclosed in a husklike casing, which meant man had a hand in its growth and survival.”


There are hundreds of corn varieties in four major categories: sweet corn, popcorn, dent or field corn, and the decorative multicolored flint or Indian corn.

“There are corns not in these four categories,” says Rothenberger. “These include dwarf corn with tiny ears, and broom corn with long, feathery sprays of seed heads. Seeds from broom corn can be used for bird food, and the wiry heads can be made into brooms or fall decorations.”

He relates that Indian corn has the hardest kernels of any corn. “They become almost impossible to grind by hand when they dry,” he said.

Indian corn colors range from mahogany to red, yellow-orange and deep blue. Combinations of colors often occur on one ear and these are popular as decorations. Lately, miniature corn suitable for small arrangements has been developed.

Blue Corn

Blue corn occurs naturally. In 1540, the Spanish explorer Coronado found Pueblo Indians planting it.

The traditional blue corn tortilla is the mainstay of the blue corn market. Processors have introduced such new products as blue corn chips, muffins, pancake mixes and corn flakes. One expert notes that blue corn grain has a coarser, sweeter and nuttier taste than other types of corn.


Arrowhead Mills, in Hereford, Tex., has been processing blue corn for five years. Its president, Boyd Foster, said: “At first, we thought blue corn would be a fad, but it has done quite well and we think it is here to stay. Blue corn makes up 8% to 10% of our sales revenue each year.”

Foster, whose firm processes about 1 million pounds of blue corn annually, said its biggest-selling product is pancake mix. “Blue corn products sell well because of the unique color and distinctive flavor. We sell products all over the U.S., but the Los Angeles area is our biggest market.”

Farmers like to grow blue corn, Foster related, because it is non-hybrid, which means that they can carry over seed from one year to the next without having to buy more.

Blue corn is often grown organically. It is best adapted to deep, well-drained, sandy loam soils with plenty of organic matter. Plant it as you do other corn.