On the color of the New England Flints and their sweet corn derivatives
--Walton C. Galinat

In attempting to develop an authentic type of multi-colored northern flint corn for use in the reconstructed farming of the 1620's at Plimoth Plantation, I chose the Rhode Island flint for the background as the closest and purest, having been maintained since Colonial Days by the University of Rhode Island and members of the Society for the Preservation of the Jonnycake Tradition in Rhode Island. But there was a breeding problem with R.I. flint. It was homozygous for both the C-I dominant color inhibitor and for dingy pericarp color. When a C allele was substituted for the C-I color inhibitor, any aleurone color would barely show through the dingy or straw color of the pericarp.

The early descriptions of the corn grown in New England before the English started corn farming and selection state that it was eight-rowed and of many distinct colors. The best and most detailed description comes from a letter of John Winthrop, J, Jr. to the Royal Society (1662) reprinted in full in the New England Quarterly Vol. X, No. 1 (1937). According to this report, the white and yellow that is between a straw color and a pale yellow are the most common. It goes on "there are also (ears) of very many other colours, as red, yellow, blew, olive colours, and greenish and some very black and some of intermediate degrees of such colours, also many sorts of mixt colours and speckled or striped, and these various coloured eares often in the same field and some graines that are of divers colours in the same eare." (The original spelling of Winthrop is retained in the quote.)

The separate listing of yellow from straw color and white suggests to me that the straw color is dingy pericarp on a snow white endosperm. The absence of aleurone color in the present R.I. flint may be due to selection by the English farmers for a corn cereal that was more similar in color to the European small grain cereals which they were more accustomed to eating. Some of the early sweet corn inbreds such as C3 and C13 have the same dingy pericarp as Rhode Island flint while others of older divergence such as Luther Hill have colorless pericarp and snow white endosperm. The only color retained in some strains of Rhode Island flint is that 1% red pericarp under the variety name of King Philip - the Indian Chief involved in a bloody war. The mixture of 1% red ears had excitement value at harvesting time because the tradition was the husking of a red ear gave license to kiss the one of choice.

In any case, the necessary genetic changes have been made by breeding manipulations in Rhode Island flint so as to restore the original beauty to this corn with a great variety of gorgeous colors. Perhaps the spirits of the Wampanoag and Naragansett Indians will smile on this. 

Please Note: Notes submitted to the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter may be cited only with consent of the authors

Return to the MNL 67 On-Line Index
Return to the Maize Newsletter Index
Return to the Maize Genome Database Page