Corn is native to the Americas and is believed to have moved into the Southwestern U.S. from Mexico, arriving in Santa Cruz River Valley of what is now Southern Arizona around 4,000 years ago. Domesticated corn was developed 5,000-7,000 years ago in Mexico. Corn is said to have dispersed along two separate pathways: southwards throughout Central and South America, and northward into the US.
There are five major categories of corn, based on ratios of different types of starch in their kernels: pop, flour, flint, dent and sweet. The earliest corn in the Southwest was a popcorn and flint corn varieties. Flour corn varieties were grown beginning about 500 AD. There is evidence to suggest the presence of sweet corn in the Southwest by 1300 AD. Sweet corn occurs as a spontaneous mutation, when higher than normal levels of sugars exist in the kernels. These traits were selected out to develop sweet corn.
In Southwestern cuisine, sweet corn is commonly eaten boiled or roasted, and sometimes raw.
Maricopa sweet corn was donated to Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1986. It was part of a collection of Native American sweet corns that was originally made in 1868 and stewarded by three men over the years. In 1868, a prospector passed through Arizona on his way to California in his quest to look for gold. This man, whose name remains unknown, had a particular interest in the agriculture of native communities and loved sweet corn. He collected samples of any sweet corns grown by Native American groups he encountered along his journey. In 1869, the prospector returned to Arizona as he was unsuccessful in his quest for wealth. Over the next 45 years, he added sweet corns from the Colorado, Gila, and Bill Williams Rivers areas, representing several indigenous groups including the Cocopah, Maricopa and Pima. At this time in history, many traditional sweet corn and other indigenous varieties were being lost as there was a movement to more mechanized farming and a growing loss of independence of native peoples with the reservation system.
In either 1904 or 1907, the collection was passed onto another man, possibly by the name of Hollis Richard, who added a yellow and a blue corn to the collection from Yaqui mineworkers living in the area of Wikiup, Arizona. Hollis endeavored to grow out samples from the collection over the years to keep the seeds viable. He befriended a young boy named Homer Owens, and over the years taught him about the collection. In 1944, Hollis passed the responsibility for the corns to Homer, who grew each of them out every 5-10 years. Homer realized that what he was stewarding was very important, and in 1986, passed the collection to Native Seeds/SEARCH so that it may be shared with the wider public.
There is not much known about the specific origin of the Maricopa variety of sweet corn other than its name. Maricopa peoples refer to themselves as Piipaash and they once lived along the Colorado River along the southern border of Arizona and California. During the 1500s they moved east to the Salt and Gila River areas. Today, most Piipaash reside within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Gila River Indian Community. The Maricopa sweet corn variety is very similar to a variety called Gila River Sweet corn which is also stewarded by Native Seeds/SEARCH as part of the Homer Owens Collection. Maricopa is taller and produces slightly larger and longer ears than the Gila River variety.
Maricopa sweet corn is very fast growing, and produces many sweet ears on short plants 5-6 feet tall. Sweet corn prefers warmer temperatures, and requires a moderate amount of water and soil fertility, making garden plots located near rivers ideal for cultivation.
The dry seed of Maricopa sweet corn includes solid red, blue, yellow, purple and red and white stripped kernels. What is interesting about corn is that it begins to develop the colors after it matures past the milk stage, a stage when you press into the kernel and a sweet milky substance is released. To eat at the freshest, sweetest sweet corn you would want to harvest in the milk stage. The kernels at this stage will be white. If you wait a couple weeks you can harvest the corn and see the beautiful colors. The taste however will be more starchy and not as sweet.
Burns, Barney T. & Owens, Homer (1987). The Seedhead News: 17.
Dahl, Kevin (2006) Native Harvest: Authentic Southwestern Gardening. Tucson, AZ: Western National Parks Association.
Frank, Lois Ellen (2002). Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Merrill, W. L., Hard, R., Mabry, J. B., Fritz, G. J., Adams, K. R., Roney, J. R., & MacWilliams, AC. (2009). The Diffusion of Maize to the Southwestern United States and its Impacts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: 106 (50). Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/106/50/21019.full