Three Sisters Gardening: Nutrition and Culture
The cultural and nutritional qualities of the Three Sisters
Guest Post: Anne Little Wolf with Karen McDonald
You may never have heard of the Three Sisters, but they are a part of most of our everyday lives, and as we enter the fall season you see them everywhere. The "sisters" consist of maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and squash (Cucurbita pepo). These three plants were staple crops of many of the Northeast Native American tribes in the late prehistoric and historic periods. Evidence for these crops dates back to Central and South America, with histories in the more recent North American Southwest, Plains, and Eastern North America. They were transported to Europe, and Africa, where they are eaten and grown together, much as Native Americans still do in this country.
Why were these three crops grown together? There are two strands of thought; one is agricultural and one cultural. In agriculture, polycultural growth is a system that mimics the natural growth patterns of forests and plants, with many plants living together. This system helps the plants grow more efficiently using light, nutrients, and water to maximum effect. Polycultural mutualism is what happens with the Three Sisters. Corn can compete with weeds very well. It grows tall and fast, and can act as a pole for bean vines. The beans, which are legumes, can fix nitrogen into the soil (which corn depletes) through symbiosis with bacteria. The nitrogen can be re-worked into the soil each year, and prevent over-use of the soil by corn alone. Squash grows quickly along the ground, and the leaves hold in moisture, while shading out and suppressing weeds.
Symbolically, these plants are called "sisters" because of their mutualism, but also because of the maternal nurturing of the human body, and nourishment in the diet. Maize has a high caloric value while lacking in protein and some amino acids. Squash is also high in calories, and it has many vitamins and minerals. Its seeds are also full of protein and oil. The beans are a good source of protein, and have the amino acids that the corn is lacking (to read more about the origins of these crops, and their uses click here). These Three Sisters are not only extremely good for you, but are versatile in dozens of recipes for each as well as blended together.
Detailed nutritional statistics for each of the Three Sisters can be found by clicking on the following links:
- Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris): a comprehensive 10 page guide from Purdue University, from Fold Medicine and Chemistry to yields and economics.
- Corn (Zia maize): nutrition facts from the George Mateljan Foundation.
- Squash (Cucurbita pepo): nutrition and growing information from Prota.
You will be amazed at the health benefits of these garden basics.
An oral history of the Cherokee story of the Three Sisters can be found here. And you can read a story about the "Union of Corn and Bean" from the Anishnabe tribe here.
The term "corn" comes from the Old English, which is related to the word kernal. (In European parlance, "corn" can be applied to any grain at all because of the root meaning of "kernel" from the Old English. In America, we make "corn" indicative of one particular grain while naming other grains separately. The word "maize" comes from Spanish roots and the Taino word for the plant maiz. There are other native terms for maize, such as sagamite, chica, hominy, pone, and succotash. Traditional maize didn't look like it does today, but it has been cultivated by Native Americans in North American for hundreds of years and has turned into the ears that we recognize. This staple of the American pantry is an amazing hybridization of a grass native to Central Mexico. We've talked about corn in previous posts, but if you haven't read about "The Miracle of How Ears of Corn Grow" be sure to check it out.
There are many legends around corn. Here are some stories from native-languages.org:
- Corn Mother story from the Lenapi
- Father of Indian Corn from the Ojibwa
- The Origin of Corn from the Menominee
As a food source the nutritive, sweet grain provides fiber, antioxidants and many B-complex vitamins. Roast it, grill it, steam it or boil it, you're still getting huge nutritive benefits. The fun part about corn is that it can be either a vegetable or a fruit depending on how you serve it. Popcorn is considered the snack/fruit personality of corn and with a good movie, there's nothing better!
Proteins, lipids, vitamins, carbs, minerals and fiber--all of that packed into one tiny little bean? You bet! These are probably the most basically solid, nutritious foods on the entire planet. Often called the "poor man's meat", beans pack enough protein, vitamins and minerals to keep a person healthy with very little assistance from anything else! They come in a huge variety of shapes and flavors, but every type has solid nutritive value.
Of course, we all know the added "problem" of beans, and that's always been a bit of an issue to deal with, namely gas. Cooking dried beans takes a while, so it's best to soften them first, this also helps with the gas issue. This is one of the reasons that you soak them in cold water overnight, before cooking them. This is because foods like beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage all have a chemical compound in them called raffinose. It is a type of sugar made of galactose, fructose, and glucose. Human's don't have the proper enzymes or bacteria to digest this particular type of sugar in their upper intestine, but there are bacteria in the lower intestine that can. Unfortunately, these bacteria are gas producing. They make CO2, methane, and possibly hydrogen as they ferment the beans, which leads to the bean's popular association with "magical fruit." By soaking the beans you release raffinose. This is why you also drain the water that the beans are soaked in, to remove the raffinose byproducts.
However, if you want to have some fun with someone who is a bit gullible, try this old trick. (Yes, it was pulled on me, and yes, I have pulled it on others! It's great!) Prepare your beans for cooking and then look around, searching diligently for a stick or wooden spoon -- if anybody asks (and they will!) tell them you have to have a stick in the bean pot while they're cooking. You put the stick (or spoon) in the beans then set a cup of water beneath the stick. If anybody asks (and they will) what the cup of water is for, you can calmly explain that the "toots" in the beans walk up the stick and fall into the water and drown. That's how you get rid of "musical" beans! (And as an aside, yes, kids will sneak back and check to see if they can catch this really happening! It's wonderful and you can have a good laugh over it!)
Often the most overlooked and undervalued of the Three Sisters is squash. Squash comes in a variety of forms and flavors that leaves the cook with just one problem. . . "Where to start?" Most people have no idea of just exactly how healthy and nourishing squash can be. From the ubiquitous zucchini to the pumpkin, squash is full of vitamins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties. You can certainly make zucchini bread, spaghetti squash, yellow summer squash and so on, but pumpkin, the largest squash, offers carotenes as well. It's not just for carving any more!!! Try pumpkin in a delicious pumpkin-apple-cinnamon soup, pumpkin chunks, stir fried or even added to a shish-kabob skewer to make a great treat.
HOW TO RAISE THREE SISTERS:
Corn and beans are by far the most resilient of the three sisters. Squash tends to be a bit touchy about cold weather, but plant your corn rows on the side of the garden that gets the most sun in early Spring. As the plants mature, they provide shade for the smaller plants.
Popcorn is a really fun plant to get kids interested in gardening. Popcorn seeds can be bought at any really good feed store, but you may have to search a little among the usual varieties available. Plant the seeds as you would regular ear corn. Now here's the easy part about a Three Sisters garden, it doesn't have to be sprayed, weeded, or otherwise tended, just watered. When autumn comes, allow the corn stalks to dry out and turn yellow. When the whole plant is dried, pull the ears off the plants, take them inside and simply shuck the kernels into a jar. DO NOT RINSE THEM, as this will cause them to mold. Just put them in a jar, cover it with a good lid and whenever you're ready, get out the popcorn maker. The old fashioned crank-type is really fun, and what is really nice about fresh popcorn from your garden is that it tends NOT to be "hully" and get stuck in your teeth like other corns can.
Beans are often planted at the base of the corn plants so they have something to climb on. (unless you're planting bush beans, these plants love to vine around fences, plants, strings, or anything that will support them.) Plant them in rows about 1-2 inches deep, cover them well and water generously. As soon as they grow tall enough to start reaching they will attach to supports such as fences or corn plants and head straight for the sky.
Squash needs to be planted after all chance of frost is gone. They like to be planted 1-2 inches deep and then a little mound created around each seed group. They will grow enormous leaves and brilliant beautiful yellow blossoms but squash is vulnerable to squash bugs (sometimes known as stink bugs). A dusting with a good insecticidal powder keeps them from sucking the sap out of the plant. If you would rather do a more natural approach to pest control, plant marigolds in with the squash. Their natural odor and flavor repels bugs and makes your garden pretty at the same time. You can even use garlic as a nearby pest repellant and have an extra bonus from your garden.
All three plants take a fair amount of water, but by using the corn as a shade provider, you can reduce that consumption somewhat. The huge squash leaves (which are a bit prickly, so beware) also provide good cooling for the fruit as it grows. These Three Sisters offer a wonderful chance to get back to some really important fundamentals of good healthy eating, but they're a lot of fun to grow as well. More fun yet is finding out what you can do with them in your kitchen, and kids do tend not to be as fussy about eating something they have actively helped to produce. It's a great step towards introducing them to a wide array of tastes and textures as well.
Here's a great video on how to plant a Three Sister's Garden: