Yes, it’s real. We defy you to pull back the husks to reveal the jewel-like kernels of your first ear of glass gem corn and not become a seven year old again. There's no knowing quite what you'll get with each one: the array of translucent beads might be mainly red, or blue, or green—or perhaps you'll strike lucky and unwrap a rainbow.

You never know what you're going to get. Pictures by Jan & Peggy (CC:BY-NC-SA)

Glass gem is an Indian corn; it was created by repeatedly cross-pollinating varieties developed and passed down by generations of Native Americans. You can’t eat it right off the ear—it’s not sweet enough—but it can be ground into flour, or popped into popcorn. Sadly, though, glass gem tortillas and popcorn aren’t multi-colored. If you’re anything like us you’ll prefer to dry the ears and keep them for decoration.

We've come such a long way

The first Americans used their wit and ingenuity to domesticate corn around 9,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. The material they had to work with wasn’t at all inspiring: a tall grass called teosinte, which produces short, brittle fruit with two rows of seeds covered in a tough outer shell.

Can you guess which one tastes better? On the left, teosinte, looking something like the wild ancestor of corn. On the right, corn.
Pictures: Matt Lavin and cskk (CC:BY-SA, left; BY-NC-SA, right)

Its ears are so astoundingly different from today’s corn that it wasn’t until 2002 that scientists recognised teosinte as corn’s wild ancestor. Over millennia empires rose and fell, but Native Americans continued to painstakingly hybridize and select their scrappy wild grass, bending it to their will.

But they could have had no idea that the plant they were creating would eventually become the most important on Earth.

Dorothy might not be Kansas any more, but there's no escaping the cornfields.

Modern corn is a most singular plant. It grows more calories for humanity than any other: from sweetcorn to high fructose corn syrup, from animal feed to bio-ethanol. It’s used to grow penicillin. It’s the enduring symbol—and the economic backbone—of middle America.

It's also a super-plant, one of just two percent of plant species which have developed a super-efficient form of photosynthesis known as C4. This lets them create sugars using the energy from sunshine faster than other plants around them.

World corn production is about five quadrillion calories a year. (A quadrillion being a billion million.) Picture: Zed Martinez (CC:BY-NC-SA)
‘To me, the quintessential American experience is a summer picnic. It’s hot; it’s kind of steamy. It’s very sensual to me … That moment in middle America when the corn is ripe.’ Paul Theroux

And that’s not the only way that corn is extraordinary. Its private life relies so heavily on coincidence that it would embarrass a Hollywood scriptwriter.

As an ear develops, long strands called silks grow from each kernel, out of the top of the husk and hang in the air. The male flowers at the top of the plant produce tens of millions of pollen grains, each catching a ride on the wind.

If the wind happens to blow it onto the silk of another corn plant, the pollen grain will grow. It burrows its way down the 18cm (7in) long silk and fertilizes the egg, forming an individual corn kernel. For an ear of corn to be fully pollinated, this chance event must happen 800 times: once for every kernel.

A corn plant produces up to 50 million pollen grains (top), each of which has to burrow down a long 'silk' (bottom) to fertilize a single kernel.
Pictures: Michael Gabelmann and Rob Bertholf (CC: BY-NC)

Corn might have unlikely origins and even unlikelier biology. But 9,000 years of continuous breeding by indigenous peoples—the first scientists—laid the botanical groundwork for something that has become truly extraordinary. A plant which does more than any other to feed both humanity and the animals we depend on. One that helps us produce antibiotics, but also Honey Nut Cheerios and Coca-Cola. One that powers our vehicles and creates biodegradable plastics.

And, of course, dazzling glass gems.