Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Indian Corn

By: Victoria Vogt  | 
Indian corn
Indian corn grows in the same way as regular sweet or field corn, except that different cultivars are planted together, resulting in calico-colored ears. Labrynthe/Shutterstock

The sound of rustling leaves and the aroma of smoke from wood-burning fireplaces are hallmarks of autumn. Really, the fall harvest season wouldn't be complete without ears of Indian corn embellishing the decor in homes and businesses. From wreaths to centerpieces, Indian corn seems to be everywhere in October and November. Everywhere, that is, except on a dinner plate. It's corn, but can you actually eat it? And where did it come from?


Where Did Indian Corn Originate?

According to folklore, these colorful ears were named after the Indigenous people of North America. They'd been cultivating it for years when they introduced it to the Europeans who arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the 15th century. But "Indian corn" isn't exclusive to the North American continent. Experts say that it grew in China, India and South America for centuries. And Indigenous peoples didn't decorate with it — they ate it.

Unlike the typical niblets or corn on the cob that you serve at mealtime, Indian corn isn't sweet. It's also got a pretty starchy texture when it's cooked. You could compare it to hominy, which is used to make grits. Indian corn can be ground to make flour, or the whole kernel can be reserved for popcorn. Ears with larger kernels are typically used for flour or cornmeal production, while those with small, pointy kernels are perfect for popcorn.


Where Does Indian Corn Get Its Colors?

But Indian corn's texture and composition aren't the most unusual things about it — its color is. Most of us are used to seeing bright yellow or golden ears of corn. How could blue, red, gold and yellow kernels coexist on the same cob? The Indian corn you commonly find at the grocery store is one of several hybrid varieties developed within the last 50 years. These calico-patterned or speckled varieties of Indian corn result from cross-pollination of single-shaded plants. In addition to the multicolored ears, there are solid ears in shades of white, ruby, blue and black.

With names like Strawberry Popcorn and Blue Corn, who could resist trying to plant Indian corn in their own garden? Luckily, it's pretty easy to grow — both the big ears and miniature 2- and 4-inch (5- and 10-centimeter) varieties. You can buy the seeds at garden supply centers or get them through mail order. Pay close attention to planting instructions; planting rows of solid-colored corn too closely will produce calico-colored ears. But if you're the adventurous type, let the seeds fall where they may.


If you're growing Indian corn for ornamental use, be sure to wait until the husks are no longer green to pick them, then let the ears dry for about a week. Once that's done, you can store them at room temperature for four to six months. Some people like to coat Indian corn with lacquer to give it a shiny appearance while others prefer the plant's natural look. And if you want to have another Indian corn harvest next year, at the end of the season, pick the largest, healthiest seeds from each cob and store them in metal, animal-proof containers.

Indian Corn FAQ

Can you eat Indian corn?
You can eat Indian corn -- but keep in mind that it isn't naturally sweet like most other corn varieties. Instead, it's quite starchy and is typically used to make flour, cornmeal or popped as popcorn.
What do you do with Indian corn?
Typically, Indian corn is used as an ingredient to make flour or cornmeal. It's similar to hominy, the main ingredient in grits, so it can be used in similar ways.
Why is it called Indian corn?
According to folklore, these colorful ears were named after the indigenous people of North America. They'd been cultivating it for years when they introduced it to the Europeans who arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the 15th century.
What does Indian corn taste like?
Indian corn is starchy, which means it has an earthier and somewhat richer taste than other corn varieties.
Can Indian corn be popped?
Yes, you can pop the individual kernels of Indian corn and eat it as popcorn.

Lots More Information

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  • Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. "Corn." 2009. (Nov. 8, 2022). http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/137741/corn
  • Enfield, Edward. "Indian Corn: Its Value, Culture and Uses." 2008. (Nov. 8, 2022). http://books.google.com/books?id=tfmPuw4-xtQC&source=gbs_navlinks_s
  • Haddix, Carol Mighton. "Amazing maize: Indian corn travels the world." Oct. 8, 2008. (Nov. 8, 2022). http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/food/chi-corn-8oct08,0,2566250.story
  • Hilaire, Larry. "Corn: An American Native." Spanning the Gap, U.S. Dept. of the Interior National Park Service. 2000. (Nov. 8, 2022) http://npshistory.com/publications/dewa/spanning-the-gap/v22-1-2.pdf
  • McCulloch, J. Huston. "Indologist Confirms Maize in Ancient Sculptures." 1999. (Nov. 8, 2022). https://www.asc.ohio-state.edu/mcculloch.2/arch/maize.html
  • Nix, Elizabeth. "Indian Corn: A Fall Favorite." History. Aug. 22, 2018. (Nov. 8, 2022). https://www.history.com/news/indian-corn-a-fall-favorite
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Indian Corn." (Nov. 8, 2022)
  • White, Caren. "How to Grow and Dry Indian Corn." Jan. 4, 2022. (Nov. 8, 2022) https://dengarden.com/gardening/Growing-and-Drying-Indian-Corn