Painted Mountain Corn

Painted Mountain Corn grown in 2012 and saved for seed.
Painted Mountain Corn grown in 2012 and saved for seed.

Corn, at least sweet corn, is a standard crop in many small gardens. I grow some sweet corn almost every year for fresh eating and for winter use, too. My favorite variety is not available commercially since it is one I have developed from crossing several open pollinated sweet corns and some flour corns. It produces two to four cobs to a stalk with 8 to 10 rows of kernels. The kernels are yellow, orange, white, pink, red, and black. It tastes like corn, sweet but not like a spoonful of sugar syrup. It’s great for parching, too, after the corn has grown to full ripeness. It isn’t very good for corn meal though as the bread made from it is gooey. For that I need a different type of corn, either a flint or a flour corn.

Over the years I have tried growing several different varieties of corn for cornmeal to see if they would produce a decent crop here. I have grown Pink Hopi, Blue Hopi, Green Oaxacan, and Striped Maize (sort of in between a flour corn and a popcorn). All of them produced corn but the Hopi varieties were not adapted to northern summers which can be cool and end suddenly. I had to cut the stalks after frost and continue ripening in a warm building. It was difficult to get many viable seeds. The Oaxacan and Striped Maize did well but if there was a cool spring then I had to delay planting otherwise the seed would rot.

I had read about northern varieties of corn grown by Native Americans but a source for these was unknown to me. In the book Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden I read about an amazing variety of flour corns, flint corns, and one she called gummy corn that the Hidatsa grew in what is now North Dakota. They had been growing corn, beans, and squash successfully for over 500 years. But where to get any of these now (that was back in 1998)?

While thumbing through a seed catalog one day I came across a corn called Painted Mountain. The catalog said it would mature in about 90 to the dry stage. I was skeptical but curious, too, so I bought two packets.

Painted Mountain is a corn developed by Dave Christensen from a selection of northern flour corns. Here is his story about Painted Mountain Corn (here at Seed We Need):

“Thirty one years ago I started growing rare lines of cold hardy northern corn for my family’s grain in Montana. Modern corn wouldn’t mature in the mountains where I lived, so I had to work with heirloom Native corns. I learned that about 12 lines of Mandan Indian corn had been saved in the national seed bank, but those lines appear somewhat inbred. I began a search for corn still kept alive by Indian families and descendants of homesteaders. After years of evaluation and crossing I eventually created a large and diverse gene pool. I exposed this corn to the severe stress of my Montana home, selecting only the hardiest to breed from. I called this Painted Mountain Corn.

This corn breeding became the project my soul needed to be completed. I was determined to utilize all the corns still existing from the frontier, before they disappeared, to select the most cold and drought hardy corn in the world, and to make it more productive. My background in agriculture and genetics was a big start. However, I also worked with and learned from all the corn breeders of that era, both in universities and big seed companies. A few years into the project I became aware that I was the only person breeding with this western germ plasm for the west.”

He goes on to state:

“Painted Mountain is not a hybrid variety, it is an open pollinated gene pool. It is descended from over 70 Native corns rescued from Indians and homesteaders who lived in the harshest climates of the Northern Rockies and Great Plains regions of the US and Canada. Some of the ancestors of Painted Mountain are now extinct, and live on only in this gene pool. This genetic diversity is readily seen in the amazing range of colors in the plants and kernels. It also means that Painted Mountain can be adapted to new areas and further selected for better performance.”

This was the corn I had been looking for. My soils are poor, sandy and gravelly, and naturally low in organic matter, calcium, and nitrogen. The climate is cool and the growing season is short even in good years. So I bought two packets and planted them. The results amazed me. The seeds germinated in soil that was barely 68 degrees. In 40 days when the plants were just reaching 4 feet in height the first tassels and silks were showing. In about 100 days from planting the corn was ripe and dry, ready to harvest. The yield per plant was small as Painted Mountain is an 8-row corn unlike modern hybrids which have 16 to 20 rows of kernels to a cob. But on my soil those hybrids would never grow without large inputs of fertilizer. For each kernel of Painted Mountain Corn I planted the yield was about 40 kernels which is just fine if you are not trying to be a big corn grower and only interested in growing good food.

Painted Mountain Corn kernels ready to be planted.
Painted Mountain Corn kernels ready to be planted.

I am now into my fifth year planting Painted Mountain Corn. The soil on the current site is extremely poor. Originally it had very little organic matter and is very sandy and stony. For two years I grew cover crops of field peas and vetch to add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil. I also tilled in rotted hay to build up the soil. Even so this was hardly good corn soil the first year I planted Painted Mountain corn in it. But from a space of 100 square feet I harvested enough to fill up two standard trash barrels with dried corn on the cob.

This year I am growing Painted Mountain again in this garden. The soil is looking better after 7 years of organic horticulture and I am expecting a good yield of corn. I save seeds from my crop each year and replant them selecting the largest cobs with a diversity of colors both in the kernels and husks which can be green, red, or purple. Today, I planted my seeds saved from last year’s harvest in five 50-foot long rows. I planted 4 seeds per foot for an estimated total of 1,000 seeds. Not all will germinate but even if only half do I will still have enough plants to maintain genetic diversity.

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Painted Mountain Corn has several traits that make it a good choice for small gardeners. First, it is a short plant growing to about five feet tall. Second, Painted Mountain is tolerant of drought and can grow on stony and poor soils. I have never had to irrigate or fertilize it beyond applying mulch and manure. Third, it is fast maturing producing dry or nearly dry corn in about 100 days. Fourth, the kernels have a large starchy interior which makes them soft and easy to grind. This is also a positive trait for animal feed since it is easier to chew.

Painted Mountain does have some drawbacks. It is shallowly rooted, produces few prop roots, and non-tillering (no side shoots from the base) or only slightly tillering. This leads to a tendency for lodging where the stalks blow over easily. Close planting can overcome this to some extent. I am also selecting seeds from plants that stayed upright during wind storms in the hope that they are sturdier by genetics and not just chance. I am also selecting for longer cobs by planting only seeds from cobs over 8 inches long. I won’t know for a while yet if larger cobs are because of better soil or a genetic trait. In the meantime this is just a very fun project for me and one I look forward to every spring.