The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash

For 10,000 years, the nutritionally balanced trio of corn, beans and squash have supplied the Native American with an unwavering dietary foundation.

| February/March 2001

  • 184-051-1a
    Central-American archaeological findings indicate that maize has been around for 10,000 years.
    ELAYNE SEARS
  • Native Americans
    Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash on hills or raised mounds. The gardens were prepared entirely by hand using gathered materials: Long, strong sticks served as digging tools, the shoulder blade of a deer or bison was attached for a hoe. Harvested crops were left to dry on racks in the sun.
    Photo courtesy ELAYNE SEARS
  • Balanced Nutrition
    Native Americans have planted these crops together for thousands of years.
    Photo courtesy ELAYNE SEARS
  • 184-050-1
    Native Americans have planted these crops together for thousands of years.
    ELAYNE SEARS
  • Beans
    Left to right, beans, squash and corn in their fully- mature, ready to be harvested state. Native american farmers grew a half dozen or more varieties of maize for different uses.
    Photo courtesy ELAYNE SEARS
  • 184-114-1a
    Native Americans have planted these crops together for thousands of years.
    ELAYNE SEARS

  • 184-051-1a
  • Native Americans
  • Balanced Nutrition
  • 184-050-1
  • Beans
  • 184-114-1a

The foundation of our family's survival plan is nothing but a plot of relatively isolated, well-watered land and a stock of Native-American plant seed that we've been growing, storing and upgrading since we first went a-homesteading back in 1968. Since then, I have done my best to assemble the seed, hand-powered tools and simple skills to take part in the cooperation between man and nature that harks back more than 10,000 years to when Homo sapiens first crossed from Eurasia into what is now Alaska. These early hunter-gatherers selected and improved a group of plants that could be hand-grown with relative ease and in sufficient quantity above daily subsistence needs to afford the people leisure time to establish settled, agricultural societies.

Many native species that are still grown today include potatoes, sunflowers, amaranth, quinoa, chilies and many more. But the three foundation plants of early new-world agriculture were, most importantly, the wild grass Zea mays (called maize in most of the world and corn in the U.S.), beans (native legumes of several species) and squash (a curcubit).

The elemental botanical differences between these three species guarantees that they will not all succumb to a single nutrition conflict, pest or meteorological event. Their growth habits and footprints on the land are markedly different, as are their nutritional requirements. Beans can thrive in half sun or in a short, wet, cool and sunless summer that won't mature corn naturally and where those few squash that do develop are small and all seed. High winds that mow down corn and whip-shred the large, fragile leaves of cucurbits will not much bother the small, tough leaves and wiry stems of beans. And well-rooted corn will stand up to the droughts and deluges that wilt or wash out less well-rooted species.

Miracle Maize

Maize is the single greatest agricultural boon to mankind that nature has given us. It produces three to six times more food to plant or parcel of land than any other crop.



Though most corn grown today goes to feed livestock or to fortify industrial products, unprocessed corn is a nearly ideal foundation food for humankind. It does lack two essential amino acids — lysine and tryptophane — as well as riboflavin and niacin. These are supplied by beans. Carbohydrate-rich squashes are a great source of vitamin A, and their seeds provide quality vegetable fats that corn and beans lack. Together, the three plants constitute a complete nutritive punch.

Native Americans recognized this combined, complementary dietary benefit and they were adopted into the spiritual family of man as the three sisters. This relationship was held sacred and was nearly universal among the settled, agricultural native people of the Americas.

Linda
5/29/2016 2:46:18 PM

I'm wondering if I can use the same area year after year to plant the three sisters, or if I have to rotate this area.I'm putting in raised beds as well as the planting the three sisters directly into the ground, so this plotting this out long term is important. Thanks.







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