Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Farm Bulletin: A Sense of the Organism

In the introduction of contributor Anthony Boutard's book on corn (link below), he remembers that "since childhood, I have enjoyed sweet corn from the garden. Eating fresh corn on the cob is a sensual pleasure that takes the sad edge off of the dwindling days of summer and, when I was a boy, the bittersweet start of school." Later, he and his wife, Carol, journeyed to Italy's Piedmont where they discovered what looked like Indian corn to their Western eyes, yet the Italians ground it into their famous polenta. It started them on their corn odyssey.

In 2009, we planted some corn seed given to us by someone who brought them back from Cuzco, Peru. As part of my research in writing Beautiful Corn, we planted a great many sorts that year with little regard to cross-pollination as they would not be used for seed production. The geneticist Barbara McClintock stressed the importance of developing the "sense of the organism” in her work with corn. It was sage advice. Sometimes we read a book on a crop and can’t help feeling the person lacks that sense—perhaps the information is delivered second-hand or third-hand. The Peruvian was planted in a block that included the first generation of what has become the Peace, No War flour corn; a single, chance ear of purple-colored corn in a block of blue corn that piqued our curiosity. We still have that ear with its missing kernels (top photo). We kept the chance ear planting upwind to avoid cross-pollination.

A massive branched ear.

The Peruvian plants were massive, some with a distinct purple zig-zagging stem. Multiple ears were born on long branches. Some we had to support them with fenceposts. The nodes above the ground produced aerial roots covered with a thick exudate. This August, a paper was published explaining how these exudates attract microbial communities that fix atmospheric nitrogen. They studied a variety from Oaxaca, but the gummy roots looked just like those we saw. This relationship may account for the corn's extravagance. Though for all of its vegetative drama, the Peruvian corn produced just a few ears with kernels. It was the only time we grew the Peruvian sort.

The "Esmé ear."

During that time, a friend brought Esmé Hennessy to the farm. Esmé is a botanical illustrator specializing in orchids who moved from South Africa to Portland where her son lived. She agreed to produce some illustrations for the book, so we delivered a box of ears to her house. Captivated by the odd Peruvian ear, she drew it first.

October 2018, nine years later in the Peace, No War planting, staff found a small ear strikingly similar to the ear Esmé drew. Some pollen from the Peruvian plants must have been caught in a contrarian zephyr or an eddy as the morning sun warmed the earth. Not the most elegant ear, nor as mature, but it shows how traits, such as the oddly colored kernels, can linger unexpressed in the genome. Bear in mind, we have been relentless in our quest for the darkest ear possible. We look for purple in the stem, foliage, cob, silk and kernel. At its extreme, the heavy pigmentation is a deleterious trait as the plant cannot photosynthesize adequately. As we have repeatedly said, Peace, No War is more art than agronomics. Despite the rigorous selection, the Peruvian kernel traits remained somewhere in the breeding population.

The "Esmé ear" returns.

Early on in our work with the chance ear population, just a couple dozen ears met our standards, now hundreds do. Nonetheless, off-types continue to appear because we emphasize two traits—early ripening and a high anthocyanin content. The reappearance of the traits in the peculiar ear that grabbed Esmé’s eye reminded us of other traits the Peruvian may have brought to the corn. As it happens, some other traits such as prop roots, zigzagging stalks, long ear stalks and other odds and ends may have come with those grains of pollen. Staff also brought in another variant we saw in the 2009 collection, flinty kernels with a bird’s egg mottling. That one had mature kernels so it may prompt the “Eggshell" art project, if we have space to tuck it in somewhere.

Aerial roots with exudates.

In all three lines of corn we currently maintain at the farm there is a genetic effervescence that makes them interesting. Sometimes the tassels have scattered kernels on them, sometimes the ears terminate with a small tassel. Some are so beautiful they would make a great ornamental. Geneticists apply the terms "dominant" and “recessive" to traits, though working with various crops we are happier thinking in terms of “loud” and “quiet.”

Reno Sweeney’s serenade to Billy Crocker, Public Enemy Number 13 starts “At words poetic, I’m so pathetic, that I have always found it best, instead of getting ' m off my chest, to let 'em rest unexpressed." Just as because a trait is unexpressed or quiet, as with Reno's sentiments, it does not mean it is absent; it is just silent at the moment. The intensely dark purple pigments of Peace, No War were unexpressed in the chance ear. Somewhere in next year's seed crop, some of the Peruvian traits may linger once more unexpressed. We will keep our eyes open. We see a similar quiet/loud expression in the other crops we grow for seed. Some a bit wilder, some a bit more demure.

All photos courtesy Anthony Boutard.

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