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Why is some corn multicolored?

Corn comes in many different colors, from the familiar yellow and white varieties to unusual shades of purple, red, black, and even blue. So why is it that some corn kernels display this colorful diversity? The reasons behind multicolored corn can be traced back to genetics, growing conditions, and human selection over thousands of years of cultivation.

The Genetics Behind Corn Kernel Colors

The primary factor determining kernel color in corn is genetics. The pigments responsible for corn’s range of hues are flavonoids, a class of compounds produced through the plant’s biochemical pathways. Three main types of flavonoids contribute to corn kernel color:

  • Anthocyanins: Water-soluble pigments that produce red, purple, and blue colors.
  • Phlobaphenes: Fat-soluble red pigments.
  • Carotenoids: Fat-soluble pigments ranging from light yellow to orange.

The specific combination and concentration of these pigments present in the plant leads to the development of different colored kernels. For example, high levels of anthocyanins result in purplish corn, while high levels of carotenoids lead to dark orange kernels.

The genes regulating the production of these pigments are what ultimately determine the colors we see. At least five major genes involved in kernel color have been identified in corn:

Gene Effects on Kernel Color
B Controls the production of anthocyanin pigments
R Controls the production of phlobaphene pigments
Y1 Controls the production of carotenoid pigments
C1 Required for anthocyanin pigment production
Pl1 Alters phlobaphene distribution in kernel

Different versions (alleles) of these genes interact to create the diverse pigmentation we see in multicolored corn varieties. The involvement of multiple genes also allows for mixing and matching of colors within an ear of corn.

Impact of Growing Conditions

In addition to genetics, the growing conditions for corn can also influence kernel colors. Key environmental factors that play a role include:

  • Sunlight exposure – Exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet light encourages production of anthocyanin pigments, leading to deeper purple hues.
  • Temperature – Cooler temperatures during kernel development spur anthocyanin production.
  • Moisture levels – High moisture is correlated with higher levels of phlobaphene and carotenoid pigments.
  • Soil properties – The availability of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil affects carotenoid and anthocyanin synthesis.

For example, an ear of corn experiencing ample moisture, abundant sunlight, and cool temperatures during maturation is more likely to develop vividly colored kernels than one growing under drier, cloudier, and hotter conditions. Even kernels with the right color genes may appear paler or less pigmented without the ideal environment.

Origins Through Selection

In addition to genetics and environment, human selection has also contributed to the diversity of corn kernel colors over time. Some key events include:

  • Native Americans began domesticating multicolored corn varieties thousands of years ago.
  • Europeans first encountered multicolored “Indian corn” in the Americas in the 1500s.
  • Colorful ornamental varieties became more popular in America in the 1800s.
  • Specialized breeding programs emerged in the 1900s to develop unique corn colors.

Traditional breeding through selection led to the isolation and concentration of rare natural mutants producing anthocyanins and other pigments. The result was specialized varieties intentionally cultivated for their novel colors and multi-hued kernels.

Corn Variety Kernel Colors
Indian Corn Red, orange, yellow, white, purple, black
Bloody Butcher Corn Red kernels with patches of white
Pink Popcorn Pink and white striped kernels
Midnight Blue Corn Deep purple kernels

Today, heirloom varieties and modern hybrids displaying exotic colors are staples at farmers markets and roadside stands.


In the end, the kaleidoscope of colors found in multicolored corn arises from the complex interplay between genetics, environment, and selective breeding over time. The presence of genes like B, R, C1, and Pl1 allow for the production of anthocyanins, phlobaphenes, and carotenoids that lend corn kernels their vibrant hues. Growing conditions fine-tune pigment development further. And human hands have helped amplify colorful mutants into spectacular varieties we can admire and enjoy today. So next time you encounter a particularly pretty batch of bi-colored corn, take a moment to appreciate the natural and cultural history on each cob.