Of the many edible gifts native peoples of the Americas have given to the world, the most important is, arguably, corn. And yet, of the tens of thousands of maize varieties Native Americans developed to thrive in every soil, altitude, and climate, most were irretrievably lost.
In the past hundred years, even more corn varieties have fallen victim to the corporate control, uniformity, and “intellectual property” dictates of industrial agriculture. According to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, we have lost 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural plants and animals since the beginning of the 20th century. More than 300,000 plant varieties have gone extinct, and the pace is accelerating with about four food plant varieties going extinct each day. Today fewer than 30 crops feed 95 percent of the global population, a risky state of affairs given our ever more unpredictable climate.
However, in recent years, seed breeders and local grain guilds have made efforts to recover the few varieties of corn kept alive in small communities around the world. One of these varieties is a glossy red corn known in the U.S as Floriani Red Flint. This rare, open-pollinated variety was lost to the Americas for untold centuries, but had been quietly kept alive by farmers in an Italian mountain village.
While the hulls are red, the interior (endosperm) is a deep yellow, so the cornmeal is yellow with hints of pink and flecks of red. It has a rich and complex flavor and is naturally sweet and creamy, perfect for polenta or cornbread. This beautiful, delicious, and nutritious variety of corn provides an example of how easily precious biodiversity can be lost, and how important it is to recover.
Plants and people have been intimately intertwined as far back as you care to go, and corn is one of the best examples of that long and mutually beneficial partnership. Since the dawn of agriculture—when people began to decide what seeds to save and which plants to selectively breed in order to enhance certain characteristics—countless generations of Native Americans developed thousands of varieties of maize, adapted to a huge range of growing conditions and culinary uses.
The first corn was developed some 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley, in the southwest part of present-day Mexico. There, people began working with a bushy wild grass called teosinte. It had seed heads with tiny little grains, each encased in a hard coat. Although the encased grains were edible, they were difficult to get to. Anthropologists think that ancient people used heat to explode the hard seed coat in order to eat the nutritious interior. Yes, even before corn, people were eating teosinte “popcorn.”
No one is sure exactly when or how teosinte became corn, but we do know that eventually the bushy, small-grained teosinte became the single-stalked, large-kerneled corn plant. Maize kernels were traded far and wide, and soon corn was grown throughout the Americas. As it traveled, local people further adapted it to various soils, climates, and altitudes, and also to a variety of culinary purposes: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so on. Thus corn became an important staple for many cultures and was considered a sacred gift.
Saved by Italian Farmers
When 15th- and 16th-century Spanish colonizers first landed in Meso-America they “discovered” corn and sent many varieties back to the Old World. The other part of the Columbian Exchange included deadly Old World diseases that wiped out entire communities of native peoples along with their unique cultures and food plants.
But through random twists of fate, some varieties of maize found new homes in the Old World. The glossy red corn now known as Floriani Red made its way to Alpine farmers in the Trentino region of northern Italy. There, many generations grew and harvested it, using most of the crop for polenta, but always saving seed to plant the next year. The region soon became known for the rich, complex flavor of the polenta made from Zea Rostrato Spin Rosso della Valsugana, which translates to the Sharp-Beaked Red Corn from Valsugana.
While that name is wonderfully descriptive, it is quite a mouthful. So when Silvano Floriani, a farmer from the Valsugana, shared seed with William Rubel from the United States, Rubel re-introduced the corn to the Americas as Floriani Red Flint.
Recovering Heirloom Corn
Now that Floriani has made it’s way back across the Atlantic, more and more farmers are growing it, as well as Hopi Blue, Abenaki Calais, and other varieties developed long ago by communities of Native Americans. In fact, if anyone deserves to own the “intellectual property” of corn genetics, Native Americans do. Through millennia of careful plant breeding, they created untold varieties of corn, from which all our “modern” corn descended, and from which we may begin to recover from the massive loss of biodiversity in our food crops.
To lose a species means losing a unique genetic combination of strengths forever. And to regain it is a precious gift that we can pass on to future generations, providing them with not only great taste and nutrition, but with greater self-sufficiency and food security.