Native American Gardening: The Three Sisters and More

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The concept of companion planting, in which one plant helps the other, is the basic idea behind the Three Sisters, but focusing on this alone glosses over many of the nuances in native garden traditions.
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Very rare Nanticoke summer squash was a "maycock" variety, meaning it was served at its green stage. 
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'Tutelo Strawberry' is a rare Native American corn variety that retains a pink color in cornmeal. 
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This 'Puhwem' Native American corn variety is one of the tallest, reaching heights of about 18 feet. 
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Many Native American corns make great bean poles, allowing beans to spiral up their stalks. 
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Clockwise from top left: 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' beans, 'Amish Nuttle' beans, 'Ohio Pole Bean' and the beautiful 'True Cranberry' beans.
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Iroquois 'Virginia White Gourdseed' corn was known as “tooth corn” because of the tooth-like shape of the kernels.
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This stunning corn variety is 'Carl's Glass Gems.'
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Iroquois 'Virginia White Gourdseed' corn lends a slightly nutty flavor to cornbread.

Considering how corn, beans, squash and other “New World” foods have changed the course of human culture, the time is ripe to take a fresh look at Native American gardening. Here, within easy reach, is one of the greatest horticultural treasures?—?a system of gardening that is, by definition, an icon of biodiversity. Offering a rich array of unusual tastes and textures, the Native American garden is part and parcel of what I consider the “soul” of American food. And yet the full story is not exactly a happy one.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with the late Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-2005), a Mohegan anthropologist with whom I discussed some of the pressing issues facing Native American gardening. She expressed frustration about Mohegan garden seeds not being preserved during the 19th century, and how this loss is reflected by what Mohegans?—?tribespeople from upstate New York and later Connecticut?—?grow in their gardens today.

Chief James “Lone Bear” Revey (1924-1998) of the N.J. Sand Hill Band of the Delaware Nation also devoted many hours to passionate discussion with me on the seed losses taking place among his people. The causes have been many?—?inroads of changing lifestyles, poverty, government programs forcing native peoples into a mainstream mold, the loss of foodways and native religions?—?and the results have at times been devastating.

But much has survived. There are perhaps two distinct Native American gardens: the stereotypical one many of us envision, consisting of just the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash), and a more complex one that served not only as a source of food for native peoples, but was also an extension of their religions. For many tribes, each plant was assigned a specific spiritual role, and each part of the plant (the roots, stems, leaves and flowers, as well as the fruits) was imbued with deep meaning and a role in native healing practices.

Reproducing a Native American garden isn’t easy, which is why I’d like to make this a clarion call to find a way to preserve this heritage. This imperative is especially urgent given the spread of genetically modified corn and the radical manner in which it has transformed corn from the nurturing “mother” of Native American culture into a largely inedible, industrial material. The innate spirituality of this graceful plant has been grossly denatured. Planting a Native American garden is a rewarding way to recapture this connection with the Earth.

The Real Three Sisters Garden

The concept of companion planting, in which one plant helps the other, is the basic idea behind the Three Sisters, but focusing on this alone glosses over many of the nuances in native garden traditions. Growing plants to work together symbiotically?—?using hills of corn to serve as poles for beans, and interplanting this with squash to keep down invasive weeds?—?is as much about compatibility and harnessing nature to do part of the work as it is a study in what we take from nature and what we give back. Like strip mining, modern agribusiness is based on yields extracted from the land regardless of the environmental cost. The Native American garden, which was actually a form of small-scale farming, made the land richer?—?one reason why early settlers were eager to seize Native American fields.

Some of the earliest illustrations that have survived of Native American fields?—?depictions of patches of corn and squash from the 1580s?—?show no evidence of Three Sisters gardening. They do show a clear understanding of the separation of corn varieties so they tassel at different times and thus do not cross-pollinate. Some native peoples farmed with other mixes of plants. The Hopi introduced a fragrant wildflower into their gardens to attract pollinators. Other peoples intermingled their corn and beans with sunflowers, which make wonderful “poles” for beans that grow too tall to climb up cornstalks.

Native American gardens were fine-tuned to their local micro-climate, and this is a feature often overlooked by gardeners today. One seed does not fit all gardens. Native peoples maintained a wide selection of plants because they often moved around, so what may have worked well in North Carolina among the Cherokee may not have been successful on the Great Plains. The Pawnee of the Midwest, for example, maintained four sacred corn varieties, of which their white-flour corn, called “Mother Corn,” was the most highly venerated. If one failed, they had others they could rely on.

Native American Corn

Native corns are heartier and generally more drought-resistant and adaptable than modern-day industrial varieties. Choosing the right corn to grow in your region is important, especially because the corn more or less serves as the “framework” for a Native American garden. If you plan to save seed for next year, choose one variety of corn to grow at a time in a given area to prevent cross-pollination.

Pure strains of native corns are difficult to distinguish unless they’ve been carefully grown in isolation, such as those sold by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. Some Native American cultural museums sell seeds connected with their cultures, and Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, has many members who offer seeds in its annual yearbook that are believed to have come from Native American sources.

I have been growing native corns for many years and recently began large-scale grow-outs at Mill Hollow Farm near Edgemont, Pa. Two corns in particular?—?‘Tutelo Strawberry’ (a short-eared flint) and ‘Delaware Indian Puhwem’ (flour corn)?—?have done extremely well, and seeds are available directly from the farm (see the chart key in Seed Varieties for Your Native American Garden). In the future, I plan to offer some Seneca corns, particularly ‘Ha-Go-Wa’ (hominy corn) and ‘Blue Bear Dance,’ as well as ‘Tuscarora’ flour corn.

Native American Squash and Beans

Locating authentic Native American squash for your garden will prove extra challenging, because many of the squash varieties have been “improved” over the years by plant breeders looking for characteristics that appeal to present-day cooks. ‘Early White Scallop’ and ‘Yellow Summer Crookneck’ are examples of this kind of improved plant stock. While both can be documented to the 18th century and earlier, they are somewhat different from the Native American originals. The old-style plants were vining rather than bush in habit, for example.

Aside from pattypan squash, finger squash and a few others, not many varieties of squash and pumpkins have survived from early Native American gardens, especially in the eastern part of the United States. I have been involved in a project in my own garden to recover Nanticoke “maycocks,” an old native name for summer squash eaten green. These squash probably represent a range of what native peoples were looking for in squash, as some are good for cooking fresh, some for drying, some for seed oil, and some for long-term storage.

There are a great many Native American beans, but few of them are preserved under their original Native American names. After quite a bit of research and some luck, I discovered that the meaty ‘Ohio Pole Bean’?—?a favorite of mine?—?was actually an old variety grown by the Delaware, Potawatomi, Shawnee and Miami living in the vicinity of Ft. Wayne, Ind., in the 1790s. The ‘Amish Nuttle’ bean is another Native American variety that has come down to us under several non-native names. The chart in Seed Varieties for Your Native American Garden has many more recommended varieties.

Planting Techniques

Planting your Native American garden is relatively easy after you have chosen a plot of ground and prepared it. The Native American garden was not like a European kitchen garden, but rather a small field, so if possible, you should think in terms of perhaps a quarter-acre. You’ll need that kind of space to produce enough corn for food and next year’s seed, because your corn should be planted in hills about 3 feet in diameter and spaced 4 feet apart in all directions. With four to six corn plants per hill, 30 or 40 hills will take up a lot of space, but you’ll also be able to plant several varieties of pole beans around the corn after the corn is about a foot tall. The beans’ role is to fix nitrogen in the soil, which is vital for successful corn production. You can grow several bean varieties without worrying about crosses as long as you plant one variety per hill of corn.

The best bean varieties for short corn (corn that grows about 6 feet tall), such as ‘Tutelo Strawberry,’ are the semi-pole or Native American bush beans that develop long runners?—?‘Amish Nuttle’ or ‘Wild Pigeon’ are good examples. Taller corn can support beans with longer vines, but some pole beans are simply too aggressive for corn. Sunflowers are a good alternative here, and they can be planted at the cross section of the spaces between the corn hills. Squash with small leaves can be planted in between. Large, vigorous pumpkins were generally planted off by themselves, as they also like to climb and could pull down the corn. Around the edge of your little field is an ideal place to put Jerusalem artichokes?—?another Native American favorite. Other plants such as goosefoot and amaranth were allowed to come up among the squash, and these could be harvested both for greens and for seeds. As we keep adding biodiversity to the mix and begin valuing marginal plants as food rather than weeds, a new horticultural balance unfolds.

Native American gardens may be part of history, but the building blocks remain to bring this heritage into modern gardens in the form of flavorful, well-adapted varieties and growing techniques that reflect an understanding of each plant’s important role in the system as a whole.

Read more: Discover rare vegetable varieties in Seed Varieties for Your Native American Garden, and learn about two seedsmen who did extensive work to preserve native corn varieties in Preserving Native American Seed Heritage. Also, check out the joys and benefits of two carefully preserved varieties in The Origins and Journey of ‘Carl’s Glass Gems’ Rainbow Corn and Try Puhwem ‘Mother Corn,’ a Revered Native American Variety.

Food historian William Woys Weaver is the author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History. We offer a CD-ROM of this out-of-print book  

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