The legend of the three sisters was a mythical explanation of a long-standing Native American agricultural practice--that of interplanting beans, squash and corn, respectively the youngest, middle and oldest of the “three sisters.” Planted together in the same mound, the three crops have a symbiotic relationship, each contributing to the others' growth. Bacteria living on the roots of the beans capture nitrogen, which boosts the corn’s growth, while the corn stalks provide a natural support for the bean plants to climb. The sprawling squash leaves shade the roots of all the plants, serving to hold in moisture and prevent the growth of weeds. The prickly hairs on the surface of the squash leaves also act as a deterrent to foraging pests.

America's Food
Not only do these three vegetables work well together agriculturally, they also provide nutritional benefits when eaten together. Corn offers carbohydrates while beans provide protein. The seeds of the squash contain fats lacking in the other two foods, and its fruit is full of vitamins. These three highly nutritional foodstuffs were staples in the diets of Native Americans. They became just as vital to the survival of the European settlers in the New World, who would have starved had it not been for the generosity of the native people. Corn, beans and squash were all likely shared by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians at the harvest meal destined to be celebrated as America’s first “Thanksgiving” feast.

“There be diverse sorts of this Corne and of the colours”
Image "Askutasquash, their Vine aples, which the English from them call Squashes" Image
from A Key Into the Language of America by Roger Williams, 1643

In 1643, the Englishman Roger Williams, who had interacted with the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes (and was later to found the state of Rhode Island), wrote A Key Into The Language of America, which was the first major attempt to understand a Native American language. Williams notes that the English word “squash” derives from the Narragansett word askutasquash ("a green thing eaten raw"). He also documents the English word “succotash,” the name given to a mixture of beans and corn, derived from msíckquatash, "boiled corn kernels." What Williams refers to as “beanes,” the Narragansett called manusqussedash.

The Native American $1 coin, issued by the U.S. Mint to celebrate the contributions made by Native American tribes and individuals, features Sacagawea on the obverse. The reverse of the 2009 coin features a Native American woman planting seeds amongst corn, bean and squash plants.

How The Crops Were Planted
A Northeastern Native American garden would have consisted of several types of plants grouped together in small hills. Such “companion” planting increased the amount of food that could be grown in a small area. Some farmers buried a fish in the mound as well to provide extra fertility to the soil. Variations of the three sisters method were employed by other native peoples, such as the Southwest tribes who added a fourth sister--Cleome serrulata or Rocky Mountain bee plant--to attract pollinators to the squash and bean flowers.

The bean is a legume, bearing pods which contain seeds. The beans used in a three sisters planting were the climbing types, as opposed to the bush beans developed by native farmers of the desert Southwest. Both the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, and the Tepary bean, Phaseolus acutifolius, were climbing varieties domesticated in ancient Mesoamerica. The nutrient-rich bean is an excellent source of iron, potassium, selenium, molybdenum, thiamine, vitamin B6 and folic acid. Beans also provide protein and fiber. When eaten green, beans provide less starch and protein, but more of vitamins A and C. Dried beans have the advantage of lasting almost indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place.
Archaeological evidence reveals that Mesoamerican farmers were cultivating squash some 10,000 years ago. Cucurbita, the squash family, consists of C. maxima, buttercup and hubbard squash; C. mixta, the cushaw pumpkin; C. moshata, butternut squash; and C. pepo, which includes summer squash, acorn squash, zucchini and most pumpkins. Those squashes harvested with immature fruit are referred to as summer squash, while those harvested with mature fruits, such as pumpkins and hard-shelled squashes, are classified as autumn or winter squash. The flesh of the squash fruits contains vitamins C and E, and is a rich source of beta-carotene. Native Americans not only ate the fruit, but ground or pressed the seeds to prepare pastes and oils. The squash blossom was enjoyed as a delicacy and was also a symbol of fertility in the art of the southwestern Hopi.
Zea mays, which we know as corn, was named “maize” by the Spanish, after the indigenous Taino word for the plant, “mahis,” or “source of life.” Tribes throughout the Americas used many different names for the food, which often meant “our mother” or “our life.” The English settlers, who used the word “corn" in reference to any cereal crop, called maize “Indian corn.” High in starch and fiber, corn was originally domesticated from a wild grass by Mesoamericans in prehistoric times. The crop had spread throughout the Americas by the time European settlers reached American shores, after which it quickly gained popularity in Europe and the rest of the world. Corn remains the most widely grown crop in the Americas.

Three Sisters Cooking
The Manataka American Indian Council includes some delicious-sounding recipes which allow you to combine your harvest of beans, corn and squash. Among other dishes you will find Three Sisters Stew, Three Sisters Corn Casserole and Succotash.


Cornell University: The Three Sisters Legend

Food, Farming and Hunting (American Indian Contributions To The World) by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield, Facts on File, 2005

Photo Credits:
"corn, beans and squash" by oceandesetoiles
'Striped Parching Corn', Abutilon; 'Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin', Farmerdill
2009 Native American Dollar--in the public domain
tepary beans, Xenomorph; Pumpkin 'Bix Max', PaulRobinson; Zea mays 'Country Gentleman', mtilton
"Succotash" by Wonderyort