Cherokee Gourdseed Corn
Zea mays subsp. mays
Origin: Virginia (Cherokee People)
Improvement status: Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~100
Germination tested 11/2020: 95%
Life cycle: Annual
‘Cherokee Gourdseed’ represents one of the first lineages of corn to arrive in what is now called the United States. This traditional Cherokee variety was once popular in the South, especially for grits and distilling. Still loved today by those who’ve tasted its particularly rich flavor. When processed and ground, kernels produce a delicious masa (for tortillas or tamales) and a silky cornbread. Easy to shell by hand, its naturally thin kernels truly do resemble the shape of gourd seeds in general appearance. It is also known colloquially as a “tooth corn.” Cobs are flat and wide and tend to have around 20 rows of kernels.
Like all corn, ‘Cherokee Gourdseed’ traces a lineage back to Mexico, still resembling older ‘Pepitilla’ and ‘Olotillo’ landraces of what is now Southern Mexico. Archaeological evidence from 400-800 AD in northern Colorado shows cobs with traits intermediate between gourdseed and pepitilla types. ‘Pepitilla’ is so-named due to the seed’s shape being similar to squash seeds (pepitas). Gourdseed landraces were once commonly grown over a wide range of the Southeastern US from Texas to Maryland, but by the 1940s were replaced by hybrid field corn varieties like ‘Reid’s Yellow Dent’ — nearly leading this variety to extinction by the 1960s. Ironically, most modern field corn and sweet corn owe part of their parentage in part to this venerable corn.
Adapted to harsh conditions, ‘Cherokee Gourdseed’ can be dry farmed and its strong stalks resist lodging (falling over) in strong storms. A good choice for organic farmers, its resistance to European Corn Borer is important as conventional chemical-intensive agriculture continues to select for stronger and stronger borers. Thick husks provide resistance against infestations of ear worms as well.
This is a relatively long-season variety (120-140 days) and is best suited to the southern US, but it can be grown in more northerly climates with a longer dry fall, like western Oregon.
From Chris Homanics of Head, Hands, Heart Nursery and Seed in Washington state, grown in collaboration with Seth Chancey of Arkansas. We believe this strain originated with the Qualls family of Virginia, and it entered the modern seed trade via Sand Hill Preservation Center.
GROWING TIPS: Direct seed after danger of last frost 1-2 inches deep. Rows could be 30-36 inches apart. Plants could be 12+ inches apart.