Wednesday, 12 November 2008
If I had to choose one thing which did better for me in 2008 than anything else, and which was a constant surprise and delight, the prize would have to go to an American sweetcorn called Red Miracle.
I got the seed from my very kind friend Graham in south Wales who shares my love of red vegetables and has a talent for sourcing very rare seeds. It's not a variety you're likely to find in the UK, unfortunately, and there was no guarantee it would even grow properly over here. It was bred by the legendary 'Mushroom' Kapuler in Oregon, USA.
The seeds were translucent ruby red and almost too beautiful to plant. I started them in Rootrainers in the greenhouse and they delighted me by producing pink roots! The Rootrainers have a clear plastic tray so I was able to watch them spreading. Even at the seedling stage the young plants were infused with red which got more and more intense as they grew, some going a dark crimson-black by the time they matured, with a few bright green leaves for contrast. They reached a height of about four feet.
As far as I'm aware, Red Miracle is an open-pollinated variety, which is something of a rarity these days as nearly all commercially available seeds are F1 hybrids. There's a general perception that F1 hybrid sweetcorn is more vigorous and better tasting than open pollinated varieties. Sweetcorn is an extreme outbreeder and is always happiest when it's crossing with something else. But there's no reason why an open-pollinated variety can't be as good as an F1 ... as long as you're prepared to put up with some variability. Diversity in the plants is a reassuring sign of a lively genepool. Variability is a no-no for commercial growers but a pleasure for me, as every Red Miracle was different and uniquely beautiful.
Some plants were green with red stripes, others a much deeper red. Some produced fairly normal looking white silks, others produced bright pink ones! One of them had deep pinky red silks which glowed in the sun. The colour of the corn itself also varied, with a couple of plants producing yellow cobs or two-tone yellow and white, while the rest were deep blood red. There wasn't actually a correlation between these things ... some red plants produced white silks and some green plants produced pink ones, with all combinations showing up. The blackest red plant produced the whitest cobs, and the deepest red cobs came from green plants. There were intermediates too, including a cob where all the kernals were pink with a dark red spot (pictured left) and one where the kernals were yellow and white each with a tiny infusion of pink. What I didn't get is mixed colours showing up on a single cob (apart from the yellow and whites). Whatever colour the cob had was consistent throughout.
Now you may be thinking "yeah, well it looks very pretty, but what does it taste like?" The flavour was another delightful surprise. I wondered if there might be a trade-off between beauty and flavour. How can something that looks this spectacular taste good as well? Well it does. It has a lovely sweet old-fashioned flavour. And the red cobs are packed with beneficial anthocyanins, so they're healthier than normal corn too. The red fades somewhat with cooking, and turns the cooking water deep red instead! Even the core in the middle is red, so it still looks beautiful even after you've eaten it.
Open pollinated sweetcorn loses its sweetness more rapidly than hybrid corn, so I'm informed. But when you grow it in the garden you can cook it within minutes of picking, so that's not an issue.
Red Miracle lived up to its name and produced the biggest and best sweetcorn crop I've ever had, despite this year's crappy weather. It far exceeded the Swift F1 crop which had been my previous best-ever (in a good season). Some plants produced two full sized cobs even as the grey English skies pelted rain on them for weeks on end.
And now I've got some exciting new sweetcorn to try out next year. Take a look at this beautiful multi-coloured seed I've just received from Alan Bishop in Indiana, USA. It's called Astronomy Domine, and it comes in every colour from red, yellow, white, black, purple, blue, pink and maroon to bicolour stripey and speckled ... even green kernals have been showing up in Alan's crop this year. It's not yet a stable variety, it's an ongoing breeding project which has branched out into a worldwide collaboration.
A couple of years ago Alan started Astronomy Domine off with a mass-cross of over twenty different sweetcorn cultivars, open-pollinated and hybrids all mixed up together. The second year he added more varieties into the mix, including some with variously coloured kernals. Now at the F3 stage, there are around 55 varieties in its genepool. The resulting genetic diversity is massive, and Astronomy Domine is segregating for just about every trait imaginable in sweetcorn. As the project gathers momentum he's sending the seeds out to others to do their own work with. The huge diversity in the seed stock means it should be possible for people all over the world to develop locally adapted new strains from it. And also to cross it with yet more different varieties and send some seed back to Alan, to add to the genepool. It's going to be exciting!
Alan describes himself as "just a farmer/gardener with a messageboard", but he's being modest. He's an independent plant breeder who understands the importance of keeping centuries of knowledge and genetic heritage in the public domain, because the long term future of our food supply relies on biodiversity and on plant breeders working for the common good, not the homogenised patented seed controlled by big corporations. And he's making a significant direct contribution to that cause by sharing his own creations freely with other gardeners and plant breeders and by running a forum which has become an international meeting ground for other like-minded people, sharing knowledge, advice, seeds and friendship around the globe.
Alan also founded the Hip-Gnosis Seed Development Project, "a continuing endeavor to re-introduce old Open Pollinated food and flower crops as well as all new unique cultivars and seed mixes to the gardening public. We continuously select (year round) for new adaptations, unique colors, and higher nutritional content as well as taste and performance in our seed crops. We openly encourage everyone to share these special seeds far and wide."
So there you go. If that sounds interesting I suggest you come over to the Homegrown Goodness forum and join in the fun.