Glass Gem Corn: Poster Child For The Return To Heirloom Seeds An Oklahoma man exploring his Cherokee roots discovered a forgotten variety of corn and revived it with help of heirloom seed savers. The revived Glass Gem corn now has 19,000 Facebook followers.

Glass Gem Corn: Poster Child For The Return To Heirloom Seeds

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Not to make you feel bad, but there's a vegetable that probably has more Facebook followers than you do. It is a special variety of corn with translucent rainbow-colored kernels. It's been revived from an ancient variety. Melissa Sevigny from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., says glass gem corn has gotten thousands of people involved in saving heirloom seeds.

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MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: Brittle cornstalks border a backyard garden in Flagstaff. They look dried-up and ordinary. But when Carol Fritzinger peels back the husks, she says it's like Christmas morning.

CAROL FRITZINGER: This is the first one I pulled this year, and it's just - I don't know - stunningly beautiful (laughter), with blue and green and purple and yellow.

SEVIGNY: Fritzinger has grown glass gem corn ever since she saw a photo of it a few years ago.

FRITZINGER: Oh, this one's a pink-and-purple variety. You just never know.

SEVIGNY: Growers like Fritzinger enjoy crossing the corn with other heritage varieties to create wild new colors and even red-and-white swirls, like peppermint candy.

FRITZINGER: Isn't it crazy? It is so fun. I want everyone to grow it, so I give as much seed away as people will take.

SEVIGNY: The colorful corn was bred by an Oklahoma man named Carl Barnes, who wanted to explore his Cherokee roots by growing ancient crops. He gave a handful of corn kernels to Greg Schoen, who took them to New Mexico and crossed them with Pueblo popcorn. Ears appeared with not only brilliant colors but a shiny, glass-like hue. Schoen says those traits had been lost when agriculture became big business. And now glass gem brought generations of plant breeding back to life.

GREG SCHOEN: That heritage is not only that you still preserve the genetic resource of all of that. It also has cultural memory, and that's a powerful force.

SEVIGNY: Schoen felt it was more than a pretty plant. It was a piece of the past that had nearly been lost. He gave away seeds to anyone who wanted them, including a couple that had just started a seed-saving school in, of all places, Cornville, Ariz., Belle Starr and Bill McDorman.

BELLE STARR: And we unveiled it at our first seed school.

BILL MCDORMAN: With our class and started opening it up, and it was one of those transformational - it was beyond belief.

STARR: People were crying in our class.

SEVIGNY: A year later, McDorman and Starr took over directorship of the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson. They put a photo of the multicolored corn on the website with Greg Schoen's original caption, glass gem. Thousands of orders for seeds poured in.

MCDORMAN: One ear of corn is that famous picture of glass gem - one little ear that's now changing the world and has, in the end, been called the poster child for the whole return to heirloom seeds.

SEVIGNY: Starr and McDorman are now directors of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, a group that saves seeds by giving them away.

STARR: 'Cause seed-saving is so magical, and it takes you so many different places.

MCDORMAN: And that's the point, in some ways, is that when you start saving seeds from something that you've grown and then you plant it again, you're rejoining a ritual - a 10,000-year-old ritual that created all the foods we eat out of wild plants.

SEVIGNY: McDorman says tens of thousands of people now grow glass gem all over the world, and it's revitalized interest in seed-saving at a time when his group says agriculture needs more resilient, diverse crops. He says it's not just about food or beauty. It's about protecting stories and a sense of place.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny in Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILCO SONG, "KAMERA")

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