Native American Heritage Month: The Three Sisters and working with nature

For many Native American communities, three plants have played a vital role in indigenous agricultural practices – corn, beans, and squash. Known as The Three Sisters, these plants demonstrate how people can benefit from working with nature rather than against it.

Who are the Three Sisters?

Photos by Robin Powell, Gerrit Davidse, and Tom Incrocci / Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash. Specifically, the corn varieties are usually flint corn meant for drying and grinding into cornmeal, the beans are usually pole beans that are harvested when fully ripe and dry, and the squashes are pumpkins or other winter squashes that grow on a long vine. 

The general idea is that the corn acts as a pole or trellis for beans to climb, the beans add nutrients to the soil due to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules, and the large leaves of the squash plants act as a natural mulch that shades out weeds and keeps moisture from escaping. 

Sunflowers on display in the Bank of America Family Vegetable Garden at the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening. Photo by Tom Incrocci/ Missouri Botanical Garden.

Other plants may be grown alongside the Three Sisters and sometimes get referred to as a “fourth sister.”

In eastern North America, the “fourth sister” might be amaranth or sunflower. In the US Southwest, Mexico, and Central America where corn-beans-squash is the cornerstone of the milpa agricultural system, other plants like chili pepper and tomato might be planted as companion plants.

Aside from being tasty and/or nutritious in their own right, these other “sisters” may offer benefits to the garden such as attracting pollinators or repelling pests.

So why are they called the Three Sisters? Native American culture is by no means singular, with over 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. alone. In fact, not every tribe uses Three Sisters planting, and the beliefs and customs surrounding these plants vary.

Within the Iroquois and the Cherokee culture, corn, beans, and squash were called the Three Sisters because they nurture each other like family when planted together according to Christina Gish Hill with the State University of Iowa Three Sisters Project.

Similarly, there is a belief in many Native communities that our relatives are not just the people to whom we are related by blood or DNA, but also include the non-human beings who we share our environment with. We rely on them and they rely on us.

Two-way relationships of reciprocity and care between humans and non-humans are absolutely essential for everyone to thrive.  Calling these plants “sisters” is a reminder that they are not just resources to exploit, but that they are part of our web of relationships linked by responsibility, care, and even love.

The Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer goes into greater detail about this idea of relationships of reciprocity with our non-human kin in Braiding Sweetgrass.

How the Three Sisters teach us to work with nature

Three sisters gardening is a great example of how to work with nature rather than against it.

If you plant corn, beans, and squash in separate rows in a traditional garden, you have a lot of work ahead of you: you need to add a bunch of fertilizer, spend a lot of time weeding and possibly spraying pesticides, and you need to figure out a system for staking or trellising the beans.

In a Three Sisters garden, a lot of that work is taken care of for you by the interactions between the plants. The typical method is to construct a mound of soil, add compost or other organic fertilizer if needed, and plant several corn seeds in the middle. Once the corn is a few inches tall, the beans are planted surrounding the corn. Squash seeds can be planted after the bean seedlings emerge.

Variations on this method are also possible. Corn might be grown in a row, with beans and squash planted to either side. The corn might also be grown in a grid, with beans and squash interspersed.

Three Sisters gardens are hard to implement on a commercial scale because they can’t really be planted or harvested with machinery. However, some home gardeners and organic farmers have had success growing the Three Sisters.

One of the challenges with growing the Three Sisters is figuring out the right varieties to use. For example, the stalks of sweet corn varieties tend to be too short for the beans, while popcorn stalks usually aren’t sturdy enough.

Additional resources:

Written by Jessika Eidson | Public Information Officer

Thanks to Kate Farley, Assistant Scientist with the William L. Brown Center for her expert insight.

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