Oaxacan Green Dent Corn
Zea mays subsp. mays
Improvement status: Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~100
Germination tested 11/2020: 88%
Life cycle: Annual
This is truly one of the world's most striking and gorgeous corns, but after years of rising popularity, it seems to fall to us to set the record straight about its origins — or at least to ask some hard questions. What we can say definitively is that we have serious doubts about this corn originating in Oaxaca, the beautiful, culturally diverse state in Southern Mexico. Home to speakers of well over 100 indigenous languages, birthplace of world-famous foods like molé, and the location of incredible archaeological sites like Monte Alban, Oaxaca is truly one-of-a-kind. EFN co-founder Nate Kleinman takes over the story from here:
I spent some pivotal weeks of my life in Oaxaca — during the tail-end of the peoples' uprising there in early 2007 — so it will always have a special place in my heart. I would love to be able to verify that 'Oaxacan Green Dent' is a Oaxacan variety, but I can find no evidence that this corn actually originates there, other than a brief claim repeated over and over again in seed catalogues. Most seed sources say something like this about it: 'Cultivated for centuries by Zapotec Indians in Southern Mexico, used for green tamales and tortillas.' It sounds thoroughly plausible. But no sources indicate where in Oaxaca it came from, or from which branch of Zapotec people. Due to the historic isolation between communities and the long time scales involved in Zapotec cultural history, here are dozens of different Zapotec peoples, and some 64 extant Zapotec languages, many of them mutually unintelligible from each other (for instance, speakers of Yatee Zapotec likely would not be able to understand spakers of Mitla Zapotec or Zaachila Zapotec or Solteco Zapotec), so why was this information not ever included in the story of this corn? Further, there seems to be no record of any corn like this actually growing in Oaxaca, nor are there credible stories of travelers encountering Oaxacan farmers growing a corn that resembles this one, or bringing back samples of any similar corn. This type of dent corn is most likely a modern strain related to (and possibly derived from) 'Reid's Yellow Dent,' developed in the US in mid-1800s (dent corns were developed in the US from crosses between gourdseed corn and northern flint corns). Finally, and most crucially, there is an almost identical corn in the USDA collection called 'ES Green Dent' — which is where the story gets more interesting.
Ernest Strubbe was a well-known figure in Stevens County, a rural patch of western Minnesota. He's most widely remembered as a conservationist, educator, wildlife artist, ornithologist, and photographer, with a true passion for birds. Less well known is that he was a farmer and plant breeder. A newspaper once called him "a jack of all trades and a master of most of them." On his patch of ground in tiny Alberta, Minnesota, he spent decades playing around with corn, and some of his work is still around today, including 'Fire Pink Calico,' 'Hawkeye Gold,' and his 'Bloody Butcher Northern' selection (which may be circulating mainly as just 'Bloody Butcher' today, though that variety is much older). According to the USDA's database, when Strubbe donated 'Ernest Strubbe's Green Dent' corn (marked down as 'ES Green Dent') to the government collection in 1977, he had been selecting it for some 40 years. It seems likely it came from a cross between a yellow dent corn and a blue corn (surprise surprise!), or possibly from a progenitor population of what is now known as 'Earth Tones Dent' corn, a beautiful multi-colored pastel dent corn that features green kernels and is overall quite similar.
My earliest memory of seeing and growing this variety was from packets of Seeds of Change seeds in the 1990s. William Woys Weaver believes they introduced it as well, and was responsible for first instilling doubts in me about this variety, while his colleague Stephen Smith has done extensive research and come to the same conclusion. Seeds of Change didn't come into existence until 1989, and Ernest Strubbe had passed away three years earlier, so it's possible someone there knowingly changed the name to make it more marketable and "exotic" than 'ES Green Dent,' believing that with Strubbe's passing no one would ever notice. Or perhaps someone else made this change and then the seeds made their way to Seeds of Change. It's unclear who first slapped the word "Oaxacan" on it, but Stephen reports that even his contacts in the corn community in Mexico are baffled by the existence of this corn.
Perhaps we are wrong, and something amazing and unexpected really did come out of Oaxaca in the form of this corn. If anyone has any evidence for or against our theory, please bring it forward. (A simple PCR test could confirm it, but who can afford that?) But despite the mysterious provenance and likely incorrect name, this really is a wonderful corn, and it does make great green tamales or tortillas!
Our seed was grown by Brennan Henry Allsworth of Whistlepig Farm in Boise, Idaho — which is one more indication of this corn's likely origin in Minnesota, rather than Oaxaca: this is a short-season corn, ripening from between 70 and 90 days, while most corns from Oaxaca take far longer than that (and many of them won't even ripen at all this far north due to day length sensitivity).
GROWING TIPS: Direct seed after danger of last frost in rows about 3 feet apart, plants could end up 10-15 inches apart.