Growing Native American Heritage: the Three Sisters

Growing Native American Heritage: The Three Sisters

by Anthony Walker, Education Intern 

In thinking about complex sustainable agricultural techniques, it is easy to think only of modern innovations.  In fact, many traditional agricultural communities have developed extremely resilient, efficient, and sustainable techniques.  One such technique is companion planting, an agricultural technique where two or more crops are planted together in a single plot.  Perhaps the most famous example of companion planting is “The Three Sisters.”  It involves three of the first important domesticated crops in Mesoamerican Societies: maize (corn), pole beans, and winter squash.  The practice of planting these three crops together was developed over many generations among the indigenous populations of the Americans.

“The Three Sisters” companion planting technique is often attributed Northeastern Woodland tribes, especially the Iroquois Confederacy.  In fact, the name “The Three Sisters” comes from an Iroquois legend.  According to the legend, corn, beans and squash are inseparable sisters that were given to the people by the “Great Spirit.”  It is important to note, however, that the “Three sisters” are also found in many other areas and tribes around North America.  Other known sites include: New Mexico among the Tewa with a fourth sister (Rocky Mountain bee plant); the four corners area among the Anasazi, where it was adapted specifically for an arid environment; and Mesoamerica, where the technique was applied on larger scale farms.

These crops complement each other in a number of ways.  Beans are fantastic for soil health because (as with all legumes) they host microorganisms in their roots that take nitrogen (an important nutrient for healthy plants) from the air and transfer it to the soil making it available for use by plants..  Corn has large upright stalks, which act as a pole-like structure that the climbing beans can wrap around.  The large leaves of the winter squash shade the soil, depriving weeds from sunlight while preventing moisture from escaping due to evaporation.  The squash stems and leaves are also spiny, discouraging animal pests from infiltrating.  If a fourth sister was included, it was a plant that attracted pollinators (e.g. Rocky Mountain bee plant attracted bees).  Furthermore, the main “three sisters” each provide an important component of a healthy diet: corn provides carbohydrates; beans supply protein; and squash are rich in vitamins.  Finally, since each of the “Three Sisters” is from a  different crop family, they are susceptible to different diseases and pests making  the polycultural planting more resilient than monocultures often seen elsewhere.

The techniques surrounding the “three sisters” developed over generations, passed on through familial and community ties.  Passed down was the knowledge about placement of each plant the arrangement of the groupings, and the directional orientation.  For example, beans and corn were planted in precise rows that allowing the beans to climb.  Another common procedure among the squash seeds were moistened, wrapped in grass and then in deerskin to keep seeds warm to ensure they sprouted before they were planted.

Not only did the technique evolve over many generations – so too did the varieties of crops.  These varieties were open-pollinated, meaning that each individual plant of a given variety is genetically unique, but very similar to other plants of that variety.  There are many benefits of this genetic diversity.  First of all, genetic diversity within a crop makes it more resilient to external forces such as extreme weather, pests, and drought.  The genetic variation also gave farmers the opportunity to collect and save seeds from the best specimens of each crop to use for the following year.  Through the use of the “three sisters” plantings, for example, thousands of varieties of corn adapted to the local environmental conditions through artificial and natural selection.  Unfortunately, many of these corn varieties have since been lost due to current mainstream agricultural practices and seed company consolidation.

The “Three Sisters” companion planting technique is still in use today and for obvious reasons: it maintains high yields, promotes healthy soil, suppresses weeds, attracts pollinators, promotes genetic diversity, and requires low water input – all without harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  Perhaps most impressive about the “Three Sisters” technique, is that it was developed hundreds of years ago.  This ancient practice from the indigenous populations of the Americas is widely recognized as an extremely sustainable and environmentally friendly farming technique.