Gardeners' Gems: Designer Crops That Will Wow The Neighbors : The Salt : NPR

Gardeners' Gems: Designer Crops That Will Wow The Neighbors


May 13, 2014 4:38 PM ET

The nearly translucent Glass Gem Corn looks more like a work of art than a vegetable.

To the home gardener who says "been there, done that" to the heirloom green bean, the French breakfast radish or the Brandywine tomato, take heart.

Nurseries and seed companies are competing to bring you the most colorful and flavorful designer edibles they can come up with. They travel the world looking for the next in-vogue plant for the home horticulturist. Every few years they introduce these new chic varieties in their catalogs and websites.

Alice Doyle, a founder of Log House Plants, a wholesale nursery for classic and unusual plants, says some of her customers are like wine connoisseurs who are always seeking the next best thing.

"It's the joy of the hunt," she says. "The nuances, the different flavors and different things you can do with [plants] and enjoying how they grow — it's all fun."

Glass Gem Corn: This corn became a rock star in 2012 when the photo posted on Facebook went viral.

And it's clear why: The translucent rainbow kernels look more like Swarovski crystals than food. But how did these brilliant kernels come to be?

The story begins decades ago with Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer and breeder in Oklahoma who started crossing different Native American corns for beauty. He chose vibrant, translucent colors and eventually ended up with Glass Gem Corn. One of Barnes' students, Greg Schoen, gifted the seeds to Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit seed conservation group, in Tucson, Ariz.

There are thousands of varieties of corn, and NS/S banks more than 500 varieties. Melissa Kruse-Peeples, conservation program coordinator for the group, sees the visually stunning Glass Gem as a way to pique interest into maize's diversity.

"We really see it as a gateway corn that introduced a lot of people who think of corn as just corn on the cob, not realizing there's such diversity and many different beautiful varieties of corn," she says. This is a flint corn, not a sweet corn, so you can't eat it like a corn on the cob, but you can dry it and pop it for popcorn or grind it for polenta or cornbread.

When the corn exploded on the Web, the small nonprofit couldn't keep up with demand for the seeds. Just over a year ago, the waiting list mushroomed to 7,500 people. Over last year's growing season, NS/S was able to grow lots more, so now customers can buy as many seed packets as they like. Since it's been available, NS/S has sold around 10,000 packets.

Indigo Tomatoes: Yes, you can now grow a blue tomato if you so desire, thanks to breeders' recent successes with anthocyanin, the compound that gives blueberries and eggplants their dusky hue.

Jim Myers, a professor in Oregon State University's horticulture department, started working on indigo varieties more than a decade ago with genetic material from wild tomatoes from Chile and the Galapagos Islands. The indigos have an entirely different gene from the black and purple tomatoes like the Black Krim or the Cherokee Purple, which get their pigmentation from another compound, called pheophytin.

The indigo tomatoes might even be better for you, thanks to the anthocyanin, which is also a flavonoid. "We've shown they have higher antioxidant potential, which is associated with health benefits," Myers said. The Indigo Rose was the first indigo tomato variety available, but some growers were frustrated by the 90-day wait for the tomato to ripen. The newly released Indigo Pear Drops and Indigo Cherry Drops take only 70 days to fully ripen — perfect alternatives for the impatient gardener.

via Gardeners' Gems: Designer Crops That Will Wow The Neighbors : The Salt : NPR.