Maiz morado’s journey from the highlands of Peru to home gardens began with a horse and a man who longed for a taste of home.
Black corn — maiz morado — originated some 2,500 years ago as the Norte Chico civilization improbably flourished in an arid region of Peru on the Pacific coast. Their water supply relied solely on a few rivers fed by snowmelt from the Andes. They harvested abundant seafood from the ocean, and they also developed sophisticated irrigation techniques that allowed them to domesticate and grow corn. Later on, around 100 AD, the Moche people took over this formidable agriculture enterprise, further improving the irrigation network, and corn became a staple food for the people of the Peruvian lowlands. By the time the first Spaniards arrived in the early 1500s, the Incan Empire had expanded from its base in Cusco, Peru to dominate a large part of South America.
The Spaniards named six different strains of Kulli corn: the Morado Canteño, a very tall and very late strain; the Morado Mejorado, a tall, fast-growing strain adapted to lowlands and coastal areas; the Morado Caraz, which was adapted to grow in the highlands; the Morado Arequipeño (the fastest producing strain, but not as intense in color), the Cuzco Morado (grown in the highlands with very big kernels) and finally the Negro de Junin, more adapted to the arid south. All these strains of Kulli corn are still cultivated to some extent in modern Peru.
Spaniards also introduced horses to the Americas, and from them Peruvian ranchers bred the Paso, a hardy but easy-riding horse with a distinctive lateral gait. They would become favorites on haciendas, the sprawling farms and ranches of Peru, for the next 400 years.
But in the 1960s, drastic agrarian reform dismantled the hacienda system — a change that took the Peruvian Paso to the brink of extinction in its homeland. A few passionate horse breeders in the U.S., including Barbara Windom, stepped in to save them.
Windom brought some of the remaining Pasos to her Rancho La Villita, north of Sante Fe, New Mexico. But she needed a skilled trainer who understood the Peruvian breed and its peculiar ambling gait.
She recruited Roberto Quijandria, a Peruvian native and expert horseman. Despite the distance, Roberto felt mostly at home, living and working with his beloved Peruvian horses on Windom’s ranch. There was one thing, though: he thirsted for Chicha Morada, the popular Peruvian beverage made with maiz morado, cinnamon, cloves and pineapple juice. But the deep purple corn was nowhere to be found.
He had the intuition that the particular strain grown in the arid highlands around his hometown of Arequipa would do well in the similar environment of northern New Mexico. He was right — and year after year, Roberto’s family grew a beautiful patch of the maiz morado by their adobe house at Rancho La Villita so they could again sip Chicha Morada on summer evenings after a hard day’s work on the ranch.
It wasn’t the first time that maiz morado was tried in North America, but mostly without success. The plants would grow tall and vigorous, but wouldn’t put on any ears. Roberto’s strain is probably related to the Negro de Junin lineage. It still grows around Arequipa, an arid part of southern Peru where day length varies more by season.
In 2017, Roberto grew a larger patch of maiz morado to provide seeds to Baker Creek, with the help of Barbara’s daughter Deb and her partner Ron Boyd, who had already been growing seeds for us on their section of the ranch.
Maiz morado is filled with anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant that can protect the body against cell damage. The kernels and cob, which are also dark purple, are all used to prepare chicha morada, and the dried kernels can be ground into a nutritious flour.
Roberto’s strain grows well in the Southwest, but growers and gardeners elsewhere will want to trial a few plants before going all in on maiz morado. But do give it a try; this beautiful, healthful purple corn is worth it!