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Dryland Blue Corn -- A Tough Row to Hoe

LAS CRUCES -- A combination of centuries-old techniques may not be the most productive method for New Mexico's Pueblo Indians to use in growing their blue corn, said a New Mexico State University horticulturist.


George Dickerson, a horticulture specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, recently completed a blue corn experiment on the Zuni reservation with NMSU Extension agents Kathy Landers and Darrell Rothlisberger. Through the Zuni Sustainable Agricultural Project, the team evaluated four strains of native blue corn under both dryland and irrigated conditions.

Most commercial blue corn is grown under full irrigation. Improved varieties with sufficient fertilizer can result in yields of up to 4,000 pounds of grain per acre.

"Dryland yields aren't as impressive," Dickerson said. "Blue corn is often grown under dryland conditions on certain pueblos," Dickerson said.

Native American methods used in the experiment included soaking the seed, planting on the full moon, using a planting stick and planting in hills. "Several seeds were planted in hills three or more feet apart using a planting stick," Dickerson said. "Seeds were placed four or more inches deep to ensure they were planted in moist soil."

In their field test, the team found that dry, hot weather and crows took their tolls on the 1995 crop.

"Trying to grow a dryland crop of open-pollinated blue corn without using fertilizer is tough," Dickerson said. "Although some seeds emerged from the eight-inch depth planted in April, they were few and far between. The soil was just too cold at that depth."

In general, the later May planting date and shallower four- inch planting depth resulted in only slightly better yields under both dryland and irrigated conditions, he said.

Blue corn is a favorite in traditional Native American foods like piki bread, chaquegue, atole and nixtamal. Piki bread is a wafer-thin cake, while chaquegue is similar to cornmeal mush. Atole is like chaquegue, but is a drink with a cream-like consistency.

"Nixtamal is seed that's been de-hulled with lime water," Dickerson said. "It's the primary ingredient for stews and other dishes, and also can be washed, ground and made into masa for tortillas and tamales."

Maize or corn has been the basis for many great New World cultures, including those of the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations. Coronado, the Spanish conquistador, found corn to be a major staple of Pueblo Indians during his 1540 expedition into the Southwest. Flour corns like blue corn remain one of the most popular and sacred types of corn, Dickerson added.