This jaw-dropping crop is a mix of several ancient varieties that were preserved through years of seed-saving efforts.

By Andrea Beck
February 06, 2020

It’s not really summer until you bite into a warm, juicy ear of corn on the cob, fresh from the farmers market or a roadside stand. But while everyone’s used to seeing yellow and white kernels when you peel back the husk and the silk, some varieties are so beautiful they’ll make your jaw drop. Rainbow corn (also known as Glass Gem corn) is one, and it’s an absolute stunner with shiny purple, pink, blue, red, and yellow kernels that look like polished beads. You’re not likely to find farmers selling it on the side of the road in the summer like sweet corn, but you can grow these gorgeous ears yourself, and even make popcorn with the one-of-a-kind kernels.

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Rainbow corn is grown primarily for its colorful kernels, and it exploded in popularity back in 2012 when a photo of the rainbow-colored ears went viral. But rainbow corn is much, much older than that. Carl Barnes, an Oklahoma farmer, started planting ancient varieties of corn as a way of connecting to his Cherokee heritage. A mix of a few different varieties of corn eventually produced a couple of multicolored cobs, which he showcased at a native plant gathering in the mid-1990s.

Buy It: Glass Gem Corn Seeds, $3.25, Native Seeds/SEARCH

Greg Schoen, a grower, was particularly enthralled by the colors, and Barnes entrusted a few of his seeds to him. Schoen planted the seeds, crossing them with another variety of popcorn, which resulted in rainbow colors with a glossy, polished sheen. Schoen eventually shared seeds of this rainbow-colored corn with Bill McDorman, who was able to save the seeds and help make them more widely available for gardeners through the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Now, you can purchase a packet of the famous seeds for just a few dollars and plant them in your own garden. Each plant usually grows to about six feet tall, but can reach up to nine feet, with ears that are usually three to eight inches long. Like most other varieties of corn, plant Glass Gem in late spring once soil has had a chance to warm up. Give it a sunny spot and at least an inch of water per week. The ears will be picture-worthy and ready to harvest about 110 to 120 days after planting.

Rainbow corn can have dozens of different colors and combinations, and you won’t necessarily know what they’ll look like until you peel back the husk. You could end up with truly multicolored ears, or kernels that are mostly shades of blue or red, or even pale, shiny pastel kernels. Every cob is a surprise!

Pretty as this corn is, don’t expect to cook and eat it like regular sweet corn, right off the cob. It’s a type of flint corn that has a hard outer layer, so you can only eat it by grinding it into cornmeal or popping it into popcorn (which, sadly, isn’t rainbow-colored). But really, whether you choose to eat it or not, Glass Gem corn is gorgeous enough to grow in your veggie garden for its own beauty.

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