Ark of Taste
King Philip Corn
Recognized as a native landrace by United States agriculturists prior to the Civil War, King Phillip Corn has been grown and developed by the Wampanoag Native American community for centuries. Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem, or leader, was known as King Philip among settlers in the Massachusetts Bay, and it is after him that the corn is named. A landrace is a species or breed of plant or animal that has developed over time through the use of traditional agricultural methods. The natural selection involved in landrace farming is what traditional agriculture is viewed as in many cultures, and the seeds collected from this type of farming are valued greatly. Over time King Philip Corn evolved and adapted to its surroundings, creating a corn with a unique color and taste. Traditionally the corn was used to make Indian meal fritters, corn dodgers, and Indian Pudding. This iconic variety was recognized by settlers as a great gift from the Wampanoag, and it’s cultivation and improvement soon became an obsessive concern of 19th century corn breeders. The improved strain of King Philip has survived into the 21st century, representing loyal corn breeders as well as the Wampanoag culture.
Like many landrace varieties of corn, King Philip Corn ranges in color from dark yellow to a copper-red. Throughout the 19th century breeders improved upon the corn, and one strain cultivated by D. John Brown stood out from the others. Between the years 1817 and 1860 Brown’s King Philip Corn was cultivated and admired by farmers throughout the region. Brown’s King Phillip Corn had a growing period of 85 days, and produced over 100 bushels of shelled corn per acre. Each stalk produced a minimum of two ears of corn and sometimes up to four, which was far superior to standard varieties. By 1860 the cob had lengthened from eleven to fourteen inches, doubling the yield from the landrace form of the plant. Another advantage of King Philip Corn is that it is resistant to mold, which caught the eye of agriculturists throughout America who struggled with mold taking over their crops.
King Philip Corn was originally grown in Massachusetts where the Wampanoag community was located, and production soon spread to New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and parts of Lower Canada. Once word spread about it’s rapid growth and mold resistance, people started to cultivate King Philip Corn in high altitude areas as well as in northern portions of the Midwest.
Currently, King Philip Corn is planted exclusively by small patch farmers in New England, and there is only one commercial seed source. In order to restore the variety, the three strains of King Philip Corn maintained by the USDA must be grown out to form the genetically diversified groundwork upon which future crops could depend.
King Philip Corn is not suitable for conventional agriculture for a variety of reasons, including the widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers, which would send the stalks into leaf production. The two to four ears of corn per stalk were considered highly productive in the 19th century, however modern hybrids have substantially higher yields. Corn production in America continues to grow due to government subsidies on the classic big kernelled yellow corn. These subsidies, and the conventional agriculture system have been detrimental to the production of landrace corn varieties like King Philip Corn. Despite its superior taste and rich cultural history, the production of King Phillip Corn has gone nearly extinct due to conventional farming practices. Growing King Philip Corn is not only an essential act to continue as to avoid extinction of the crop, but it is vital in conserving the culture behind this historic landrace corn variety.