A Teosinte Christmas in Colorado

So, i know I’ve blogged a bit about experimentally growing Teosinte in my post about growing prehistoric corn and also in my post about differences between teosinte species. Both posts have gotten quite a bit of traffic over the years and have brought people to my blog who are interested in Teosinte specifically.

For those of you who don’t know Teosinte is a progenitor to modern Corn (Also known as Maize), which is still able to interbreed with Corn. Some teosinte is annual, while others are perennial (or maybe bi-annual). There are many people who are interested in breeding perennial teosinte with corn to make perennial or bi-annual corn.

The major problem with trying to grow Teosinte in a moderate climate as here in Colorado in the United States is that it is adapted to grow in the climate of mexico and our growing season just isn’t really long enough. Even more so since Teosinte is day-length sensitive and does not even start to tassel, silk, and pollinate until the days get short and the sunlight shifts deeper into the red spectrum. By the time that happens here it is usually around August and often we get snow by September or October. Definitely not enough time for Teosinte or Corn seeds to mature and dry down for saving. …Or is it?!

Well, this year it just happened to turn out just barely long enough. I’m calling it my Christmas miracle! haha. I think it was a combination of it being a La Nina weather year with an unusually warm fall with no snow until here in December. But also with the fact that i dug up my clump of teosinte plants and put them in a pot in the garage. Though they were a bit unhappy in the garage and were touching the ceiling.

Still i was able to keep them in there long enough to hand pollinate them. But to be honest i thought i had again failed to get viable Teosinte seeds. But when the plants were dead i went out and happened to find some! Above is a picture of what i believe to be seeds of ‘Zea mexicana’ teosinte seeds.

If there is one moral of this story that you should take away it is this: Never give up even when everyone else thinks you are crazy or tell you that what you believe is impossible. I learned this in gardening from my friend Joseph Lofthouse of Utah. He has had success with so many of his unusual crops that no one else in his valley of Utah is able to grow. He often starts with many varieties of a plant as possible and grows as many as he can. Often more than 90% of them die or fail to produce seeds. But he only needs a few that do. Once he gets seeds he can start to effort to plant them year after year and adapt them to his climate. If they still fail to thrive he lets them die or culls them off himself. But he has a variety of unusual crops, such as Landrace Watermelon adapted to Utah (and by extension Colorado), Landrace Cantaloupe, Landrace inter-species hybrid squashes, Tomatoes that are self-incompatible and are highly attractive to bees (modern tomatoes are not at all and are highly inbred), and more.

 

On the left here is a photo of one small cob of a teosinte hybrid (zea diploperennis-corn hybrid from the USDA) pollinated with what i believe to be flour or field corn pollen. On the right is the same teosinte-corn hybrid cob line but i believe this one was self pollinated with its own pollen. It seems to have popcorn heritage as the seeds show popcorn / flint corn characteristics.

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Here is another strain of day-length neutral teosinte (decended from Zea mexicana) that a collaborator Joseph Lofthouse of Utah is growing and having success with. I believe he got the seed originally from NativeseedsSEARCH in Arizona. He decided to test if it makes good popcorn.

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Here is my Teosinte clump in the summer of 2016.

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Here is the same spot with snow on it now in winter.

If you’d like to follow the discussion about growing teosinte in places it is not normally supposed to grow (or other unusual crops) then visit the Alan Bishop Homegrown Goodness plant breeding forum here!

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Growing Prehistoric Corn (Teosinte)

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I grew some Teosinte again this year. I was able to plant several different varieties, so i could evaluate them and observe their differences. There seemed to be more differences than similarities, and there were a few traits that were common with some of my Indian Corn that i like to grow. One interesting trait that i occasionally see in my indian corn is where there are some male parts that grow on the very tops of the cobs that in theory could produce pollen to self pollinate. The problem with this trait in corn is that it usually doesn’t seem to function anymore when it does show up, and in most cases never appears at all.

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Here is a “cob” of Zea mexicana teosinte that has made it to the silking stage and is ready to accept pollen. I’m delighted to have found a variety that has the potential of setting mature seeds here in my garden. Teosinte is native to Mexico, so there are quite a few differences in the length of the growing season between Mexico and Colorado. So far only Zea mexicana and a variety of teosinte called “Northern Tepehuan Maizillo” are the only types to reach the pollen stage here in Colorado; and Zea Mexicana is the only one so far to reach the silking/seed stage. I look forward to trying to grow (and maybe cross) both these varieties next year. This Zea mexicana plant is really close to producing mature seeds, but the plant is dying due to a frost the other night. If i can start some Zea mexicana earlier in the season, then i might have a better chance of getting some mature seeds before winter.

I grew a very nice specimen of Zea diploperennis last year, and i hoped it would be able to survive the winter, but it did not reappear this year. I planted some more, but they were in a nutrient deficient spot, and had stunted growth this year.

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Distribution map for teosinte growing areas

A theory of mine that I’d like to explore sometime in the future has to do with the origin of Corn (Maize). Teosinte is obviously the origin, but there are significant differences in seed shape and cob formation. My current theory is that cobs are an emergent trait that appeared after two distinct teosinte lines crossed. The most likely cross in my mind is one between Zea mexicana and Zea parviglumis. Their ranges come very close to overlapping in several areas. After growing several varieties in my garden this year, i can tell you that strangely Zea mexicana and Zea parviglumis are eerily similar to corn. Zea parviglumis is a tillered teosinte, but it has only has about 6 tillers, but other varieties like Zea diploperennis or Zea huehuetenangensis have like 10 tillers each. Zea mexicana has no tillers. Zea parviglumis is a little short, and Zea mexicana is fairly tall. Theoretically if they were crossed then the resulting hybrid should be the same height as the corn that grows in my garden, and the intermediate growth pattern should also be closer to corn than either parent.

Teosinte hybrid showing an emergent but primitive 4 rowed cob

Part of my idea of an emergent cob from a teosinte hybridized with another teosinte species is based on the work done by Mary Eubanks. Mary Eubanks has published a few articles about a theory that Gamma Grass (Tripsacum) is one parent of modern corn that hybridized with teosinte a long time ago in Mexico. It’s an interesting theory, but it seems that most geneticists don’t believe Tripsacum is a parent that led to corn. I also have my doubts about it, but the the work done by Mary Eubanks is still important. She has created Tripsacum-Teosinte hybrids at Duke University.  Her work shows that when teosinte is hybridized with a similar grass species (Tripsacum) that in F2 generation a primitive 4 rowed cob starts to form and is an emergent trait.

Diagram showing postulated evolution of modern maize

Surprisingly there don’t seem to be a lot of pictures of teosinte on the internet. If your interested in seeing a few more pictures of the ones i grew this year in 2011, then by all means visit my photobucket page here. The pictures of teosinte are not individually labeled as to which species is which, but i can tell them apart after growing them.

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EDIT (October 24, 2011): I was able to hand pollinate the Zea mexicana plantin my yard today with the pollen from the Zea mexicana. They only have about a day and a half before a big snow storm, so i hope it’s enough time to actually fertilize the seeds. I will try and cut the plants down and bring them inside to dry. Here’s hoping! 😀