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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Blue Corn Unique to American Southwest

LAS CRUCES -- Maize or corn has been the foundation for many great cultures in the New World, including those of the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations. Today, corn continues to be the backbone of modern American agriculture.

"One of the most unique corns found here in the Southwest is blue corn," said George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "During his 1540 expedition into the Southwest, Coronado found blue corn and other flour corns to be major staples of Pueblo Indians. Blue corn is still an important element in Native American religious rituals."

Most blue corns grown in the Southwest are flour corns. The kernels are made of soft, floury endosperm covered by a hard shell. A thin layer of the outer cells contain blue pigment, giving the corn its color.

"Unlike most commercial hybrid dent corns that can yield 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of grain per acre, blue corn is open-pollinated and usually has relatively low yields of 1,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre," Dickerson said. "Blue corn plants also vary in height and flowering periods. Plants may send up extra stalks and tend to lodge or fall over when they mature, making blue corn difficult to harvest mechanically."

Blue corn improvement is a slow process of selecting ears from ideal plants in the fall and saving seed for next year's crop. Desirable characteristics might include bluer color, long ears, multiple ears per plant or less lodging. To select for earliest yield, tag the first plants when they begin to tassel. "Years of continual selection pressure will eventually yield the desired characteristics," he said. "However, some characteristics like lodging resistance are difficult to achieve."

Blue corn often is higher in lysine than dent corn. "Lysine is an essential amino acid necessary for building protein in our bodies," Dickerson said. "Most blue corns also tend to be higher in zinc and iron than dent corn."

Blue corn often is ground into various flours or meals. These flours or meals are then used to make tortillas, chips, muffin mixes, pancake mixes or corn meal mush called atolé. Other Native American dishes made from blue corn include chaquegue, a corn meal drink, and piki or paper bread, a wafer-thin cake used in ceremonies.

"Nixtamalization is a traditional Latin American and Native American method of processing blue corn and other flour corns into tortillas," he said. The kernels are boiled in a lime solution of juniper ash and water for a short period, then allowed to steep overnight. Then the drained corn is washed to remove the loose seed coats. The mash or nixtamal is then ground into flour to make dough for tortillas.

The ash used in the nixtamalization process makes the cooking process alkaline, which improves the flavor of the flour and the calcium and niacin content. "Niacin or nicotinic acid is a member of the vitamin B complex and is essential for human growth," Dickerson said.