Landracing Corn in the Missouri Ozarks

[from Thinkific]
Corn is the crop which I’ve been breeding for longer than anything else. I started corn breeding in either 2010 or 2011 (can’t remember which year for sure) with “Virginia White Gourdseed”. It had a lot of variability in it, and similar to what I’ve often experienced with corn seed that I bring in, many of the plants didn’t even make it to maturity. Germination was spotty. Many seedlings died at less than a foot tall. Of the ones that made it, many ears had too much mold, rot and earworm damage to be useful. Luckily I had interplanted squash because the corn patch ended up very sparse, but here and there were some really good looking ears that made me realize I wanted to propagate them, and led me down the path of plant breeding.

There was a decent amount of variability in the original seed, but I ended up crossing three more varieties into it during the course of the 2010s. At first, it was because I was concerned about low genetic diversity and inbreeding depression because I only had saved from around 50 ears the first year, that was all there were that were of a quality enough that I wanted to propagate them. So I decided to add similar varieties into the mix to add diversity and have more to select from. I added in some “Cherokee Gourdseed”, “Tennessee Red Cob”, and “Red and White Texas Gourdseed”. I’ve been selecting for yield, gourdseed form (long, thin kernels), mold resistance, and ease of hand processing (a few still cling more tightly, but by now the vast majority of the kernels come off the cobs easily). The difference in mold resistance especially has been huge. Where I am in the Ozarks (Ozark County, MO), mold is a huge issue, especially with anything that needs to dry down. At this point, while many ears still get worm damage at the tip, very few have any bad kernels farther down (except this past season when extreme conditions of drought followed by heavy storms hit). This is very different than during the first few years. I’ve inadvertently been selecting for thicker, tighter husks. I’ve been calling it “Ozark Gourdseed” because it’s different enough now from the original varieties but has the gourdseed type form.

The plants grow tall. It varies each year and even from plant to plant, but the average is probably around 12 feet tall. From planting at the beginning of May, they usually are ready to harvest around the 1st of September. I don’t use much irrigation but do some especially focused around the squash plants that I tend to interplant and are less drought tolerant than the corn. There is still a decent amount of diversity in the mix, more than a uniform variety but less than a Lofthouse type landrace. The majority of the ears are white, but there is a decent amount of red in the mix as well. Some of the cobs are red too.

I’ve given the seed to a number of people in different places but only heard back from a few that actually grew it, and I don’t know if anyone else has saved their seeds and propagated it. It has worked well in other Ozark locations. I have friends in Minnesota and Michigan that tried growing it but it didn’t work there because the summer isn’t long or warm enough that far north for the ears to mature. My guess is that anywhere south of I-80 has plenty of growing season for it (excepting some high elevation areas) while north of there it starts to get more iffy.

What I use it for the most is tortillas. It nixtamalizes well and makes nice tortillas. I separate the red out from the white while I’m processing it. Anything with only a hint of red goes in with the white but cobs with strongly red kernels get shelled into a separate bucket. I tend to grind the red stuff dry and use it for cornbread or other things that don’t involve nixtamalization so as to make full use of the good flavor that comes from the red skins of the kernel. The red kernels will also make good tortillas as well that are more tan colored and still retain some of the flavor associated with the red color. Even though the red layer rinses off with nixtamalization, some of the flavor does still infuse into the masa.

I do dry grind some of the white stuff as well but mostly nixtamalize it, and it’s easier to rinse than the red stuff. I select to keep the majority of it white because making tortillas is easiest with the white stuff and that’s what I do the most of. It’s more of a neutral flavor too. I do like having 10-20% or so red because the red adds such a good hearty flavor that I like at certain times. Anyone who wanted a different balance of colors or only one or the other could select for that.

I don’t have any photos on hand of the “Ozark Gourdseed” and it’s all already been shelled this year. I’m not generally much of a photo taker but starting to change that so I can share seed more widely. I continue to grow and select the “Ozark Gourdseed” every year.

I began another corn project in 2019. I planted seven varieties intermingled in the same patch. One was the “Ozark Gourdseed”, which I included because I wanted some of the adaptations to place that I’d already selected for> I chose the others to bring in a lot of diversity. I didn’t have a plan at first for what I would be selecting for, other than general well performing plants. The other varieties I included the first year were “Cherokee White Flour”, “Jellicorse Twin”, “Po’suwaegeh Blue”, “Warners”, “Truckers Favorite White”, and “Drought Tolerant White”.

When the harvest came in, I decided I wanted to take things in the direction of a flour type corn with mixed coloring of primarily blue but with white and lavender in the mix too. I started selecting in favor of, but not exclusively for, those characteristics. For the first few years especially I wanted to include some seed from any plants that performed well so I could get a diversity of well adapted genetics and nudge it more and more toward the kernel cahracteristics I want each year. Once I realized I wanted more blue, I added “Blue Clarage” into the mix the second year, as I’d heard some good things about that variety. I wasn’t disappointed, I particularly like the look and the taste that it added into the mix.

I added some lofthouse flour corn into the mix this year, but it tasseled significantly earlier than the rest and didn’t do so well, so I didn’t really want to save much seed form it. I did save a tiny bit, a few kernels that looked like they got pollinated by other plants in the patch, so I have a very small contribution of those genetics in the landrace. I haven’t named it anything specific yet, it’s just the landrace corn that I’m working on and is still very much a work in progress. It’s generally a long season corn but with more variation than the “Ozark Gourdseed”. Currently I go through the patch three times or so to harvest the ears that are ready. I eventually hope to select for more uniform maturing of the ears. I like diversity in general but also would rather be able to harvest the patch all at once.

This year (2022) wasn’t a great year for corn. The weather in June and especially July was very extreme hot and dry. I irrigated the corn some but not that much. I got a substantially lower yield than normal but enough of the plants did well that I had a good opportunity for selection for resilience. The landrace blue/white corn did better overall than the “Ozark Gourdseed”, some might be from genetic differences but I think it was mostly because I had planted it several weeks earlier so it got further into its growth before the extereme conditions hit. The “Ozark Gourdseed” also got hit worse by a late July storm which knocked over about a quarter of the stalks, while the landrace blue/white was in a more protected area and didn’t get hit as badly. Luckily I still have plenty of corn to eat from the 2021 season, which was the best year ever for it.

Here’s a picture of a sampling of the blue/white landrace ears from the 2022 season. I’m planning of sending some seed of both these and the “Ozark Gourdseed” to the seed project, along with the squash I posted about yesterday and melons, both muskmelons and watermelons.



Thank you for sharing your corn stories. Those cobs look beautiful. Do you have any idea on what benefits the tall height brings to your population (besides keeping cobs away from small animals)? Asking because I grew some Oaxacan corn this year, it grew a few feet taller than the other flour corns I had, and had trouble not falling over. I learned from interviews that the bean plants in the milpas are meant to hold everything together, so that the corn doesn’t fall over. Previously the little I had heard about the three sisters planting was more about the corn providing support for the beans, but that seems less of a concern to the Mexican farmers. And their corn really needs support-- it is so tall, can be 15 to probably 20 feet in ideal conditions, and the cobs are large and heavy, pulling down the stalks if they’re not supported. I suppose breeding corn to be short (like has been common in the US) so that it doesn’t fall over, means far less leaf surface for photosynthesis, so that the plants need more fertility in order to be productive, compared to older populations. Anyway, long story short, I’ve been curious about the benefits of selecting for taller corn…


I haven’t actually selected for height, although I did start out with longer season tall corns, especially for the “Ozark Gourdseed”. More of a mix has gone into the blue and white landrace but it’s mostly pretty tall too. I do like having them well above critter height. I think height may be accidentally selected for over time in a diverse corn patch when selecting for yield, as the taller plants get more sun on their leaves overall.

Although I haven’t actively selected for height, I certainly haven’t done anything to discourage it. I do like it when people comment that it’s the tallest corn they’ve ever seen. I Do grow squash around it, but only occasionally plant beans and mostly only on the southern side of the patch. Until this past year, I hadn’t had any significant issues with them falling over. I had never had more than a small fraction of those of mature height fall over, and if they fell over when young, even 6 ft high or so, they right themselves quickly and do fine although the base of the stalks will be curved and make the patch more annoying to get through. This past year as I mentioned, I had about a quarter of the “Ozark Gourdseed” stalks knocked over in a late summer storm after they were too mature to right themselves again. Many survived but had the ears eaten by critters since they were low to the ground. The plants were actually shorter than usual due to the extreme summer conditions but were still probably about 10 ft tall on average, and possibly the stress from the weather made them more vulnerable when a storm came. We get some pretty intense storms here and usually if they hit at the mature stage, no more than a few stalks fall over.

This past summer has made me think more about the merits of different heights/maturity times. I think big tall long season varieties have a higher potential yield as long as things work out, as there’s just that much more time for photosynthesis to happen, but shorter, quicker varieties also have merits too, as a shorter time to maturity means there’s that much less of a chance a disaster will strike when they’re in the ground. If I start another corn breeding project, it will probably be a shorter, faster maturing variety for the increases resilience in tough years as well as because it’ll pollinate earlier than my longer season corns and thus won’t have to be isolated from them. I’d probably select for flint type in this hypothetical project since it would add more diversity to my corn.

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Very interesting! I am growing the beginning of my own corn grex this year. I would definitely be interested in trying to grow some of this next year though! I’m in Ohio (6a) and it would be interesting to see how it does here.

Ozark Gourdseed Maize featured at the Buffalo Seed Company!

This maize in this photo they posted is very beautiful and also looks very different from the your first photo here, these look like the traditional Mexican landrace corns, do you grow both of these?


I didn’t notice your question until now. Yes, I grow both the Ozark Gourdseed that is white and red plus the blue/white/lavender mix pictured in the first post, which is a more recent project that still needs more selection and which I don’t have a name for yet.

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