Three Sisters (agriculture)

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Maize, climbing beans, and winter squash planted together Three Sisters 4.jpg
Maize, climbing beans, and winter squash planted together

The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various Indigenous peoples of North America: squash, maize ("corn"), and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans). In a technique known as companion planting, the maize and beans are often planted together in mounds formed by hilling soil around the base of the plants each year; squash is typically planted between the mounds. The cornstalk serves as a trellis for climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen in their root nodules and stabilize the maize in high winds, and the wide leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds.


Indigenous peoples throughout North America cultivated different varieties of the Three Sisters, adapted to varying local environments. The individual crops and their use in polyculture originated in Mesoamerica; where squash was domesticated first, followed by maize and then beans, over a period of 5,000–6,500 years. European records from the sixteenth century describe highly productive Indigenous agriculture based on cultivation of the Three Sisters throughout what are now the Eastern United States and Canada, where the crops were used for both food and trade. Geographer Carl O. Sauer described the Three Sisters as "a symbiotic plant complex of North and Central America without an equal elsewhere".

Cultivation methods

The Three Sisters planting method is featured on the reverse of the 2009 US Sacagawea dollar. 2009NativeAmericanRev.jpg
The Three Sisters planting method is featured on the reverse of the 2009 US Sacagawea dollar.

In indigenous American companion planting, maize ( Zea mays ), beans ( Phaseolus and Vicia [2] spp.), and squash ( Cucurbita pepo ) are planted close together. The maize and beans are often planted together in mounds formed by hilling soil around the base of the plants each year; squash is typically planted between the mounds. [3] In the northeastern U.S., this practice increases soil temperature in the mound and improves drainage, both of which benefit maize planted in spring. [3] Each mound is about 30 cm (12 in) high and 50 cm (20 in) wide, and several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound; in parts of the Atlantic Northeast, rotten fish or eels are buried in the mound with the maize seeds, to act as additional fertilizer where the soil is poor.[ citation needed ] In Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) farming, the fields were not tilled, enhancing soil fertility and the sustainability of the cropping system by limiting soil erosion and oxidation of soil organic matter. [4]

The three crops benefit by being grown together. [3] [2] The cornstalk serves as a trellis for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and their twining vines stabilize the maize in high winds, and the wide leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds. [5] [6] The prickly hairs of some squash varieties also deter pests, such as deer and raccoons. [6]

Although this synergy had been traditionally reputed among American cultures, scientific confirmation has arrived only much more recently. [2] Much of this research was performed in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s and published in several volumes of Biochemical and Physiological Bases for Plant Interactions in Phytocenosis edited by Andrey Mikhailovich Grodzinsky  [ uk; ru ]. [2] Dzubenko & Petrenko 1971, Lykhvar & Nazarova 1970 and Pronin et al. 1970 find a wide number of leguminous crops increase the growth and yield of maize, while Gulyaev et al. 1970 select later maturing lines of beans to produce the converse effect, increasing even further the yield gain of beans when planted with maize. [2] Pronin et al. 1972 find increased productivity and root exudate in both crops when combining Vicia faba with maize, and even more so in soils with preexisting high nitrogen fixing microorganism activity. [2]

Three Sisters mound planting in Arizona Three Sisters mound culture in Arizona Mountains.jpg
Three Sisters mound planting in Arizona

Indigenous peoples throughout North America cultivated different varieties of the Three Sisters, adapted to varying local environments. [7] The milpas of Mesoamerica are farms or gardens that employ companion planting on a larger scale. [8] The Ancestral Puebloans adopted this garden design in the drier deserts and xeric shrublands environment. The Tewa and other peoples of the North American Southwest often included a "fourth Sister", Rocky Mountain bee plant ( Cleome serrulata ), which attracts bees to help pollinate the beans and squash. [9] [ better source needed ] The Three Sisters crop model was widely used by a number of First Nations in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Lowlands region. [10]


European records from the sixteenth century describe highly productive Indigenous agriculture based on cultivation of the Three Sisters throughout what are now the Eastern United States and Canada, from Florida to Ontario. [4] Geographer Carl O. Sauer described the Three Sisters as "a symbiotic plant complex of North and Central America without an equal elsewhere". [11] Agronomist Jane Mt. Pleasant writes that the Three Sisters mound system "enhances the soil physical and biochemical environment, minimizes soil erosion, improves soil tilth, manages plant population and spacing, provides for plant nutrients in appropriate quantities, and at the time needed, and controls weeds". [3]

Nutritionally, maize, beans, and squash contain all nine essential amino acids, [4] as well as complex carbohydrates and essential fatty acids.[ citation needed ] The protein from maize is further enhanced by protein contributions from beans and pumpkin seeds, while pumpkin flesh provides large amounts of vitamin A; with the Three Sisters, farmers harvest about the same amount of energy as from maize monoculture, but get more protein yield from the inter-planted bean and pumpkin. Mt. Pleasant writes that this largely explains the value of the Three Sisters over monoculture cropping, as the system yields large amounts of energy, and at the same time increases protein yields; this polyculture cropping system yielded more food and supported more people per hectare compared to monocultures of the individual crops or mixtures of monocultures. [4]

Society and culture

Maize, beans, and squash, whether grown individually or together, have a very long history in the Americas. [4] The process to develop this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years. Squash was domesticated first, with maize second and beans third. [12] [13] Squash was first domesticated 8,000–10,000 years ago. [14] [15]

Cahokian, Mississippian and Muscogee culture

Corn, squash and beans were planted ca. 800 AD in the largest Native American city north of the Rio Grande known as Cahokia, in the present US state of Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. The Three Sisters crops were responsible for the surplus food that created an expanded population throughout the extended Mississippi River System, creating the Mississippian and Muscogee cultures that flourished from ca. 800 AD to ca. 1600, when physical contact with Spanish explorers brought Eurasian diseases, death, and cultural collapse.

Haudenosaunee culture

Historic marker in Madison County, New York Grain pits.JPG
Historic marker in Madison County, New York

In the Handbook of North American Indians , the Three Sisters are called the "foundation of (Iroquois) subsistence", allowing the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois to develop the institutions of sedentary life. [16] The Three Sisters appear prominently in Haudenosaunee oral traditions and ceremonies, such as the creation story and the thanksgiving address. [3] Researchers in the early 20th century described more than a dozen varieties of maize and similar numbers of bean varieties, as well as many types of squash, such as pumpkin and winter squash, grown in Haudenosaunee communities. The first academic description of the Three Sisters cropping system in 1910 reported that the Iroquois preferred to plant the three crops together, since it took less time and effort than planting them individually, and because they believed the plants were "guarded by three inseparable spirits and would not thrive apart". [4]

Among the Haudenosaunee, women were responsible for cultivation and distribution of the three crops, which raised their social status. Male roles traditionally included extended periods of travel, such as for hunting expeditions, diplomatic missions, or military raids. Men took part in the initial preparation for the planting of the Three Sisters by clearing the planting ground, after which groups of related women, working communally, performed the planting, weeding, and harvesting. [17] Based on archaeological findings, paleobotanist John Hart concludes that the Haudenosaunee began growing the three crops as a polyculture sometime after 700 BP. [4] The Haudenosaunee frequently traded their crops, so the need for each crop could vary substantially from year to year. Jane Mt. Pleasant surmises that the Haudenosaunee may have typically inter-planted the three crops, but they could also have planted monocultures of the individual crops to meet specific needs. [4]

Maya culture

The Maya diet focused on three domesticated staple crops: maize, squash, and beans (typically Phaseolus vulgaris ). Among the three, maize was the central component of the diet of the ancient Maya and figured prominently in Maya mythology and ideology. Archaeological evidence suggests that Chapalote-Nal-Tel was the dominant maize species, though it is likely others were being exploited also. [18] Maize was used and eaten in a variety of ways, but was always nixtamalized.

See also

Related Research Articles

Vegetable farming is the growing of vegetables for human consumption. The practice probably started in several parts of the world over ten thousand years ago, with families growing vegetables for their own consumption or to trade locally. At first manual labour was used but in time livestock were domesticated and the ground could be turned by the plough. More recently, mechanisation has revolutionised vegetable farming with nearly all processes being able to be performed by machine. Specialist producers grow the particular crops that do well in their locality. New methods—such as aquaponics, raised beds and cultivation under glass—are used. Marketing can be done locally in farmer's markets, traditional markets or pick-your-own operations, or farmers can contract their whole crops to wholesalers, canners or retailers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Monoculture</span> Farms producing only one crop at a time

In agriculture, monoculture is the practice of growing one crop species in a field at a time. Monoculture is widely used in intensive farming and in organic farming: both a 1,000-hectare/acre cornfield and a 10-ha/acre field of organic kale are monocultures. Monoculture of crops has allowed farmers to increase efficiency in planting, managing, and harvesting, mainly by facilitating the use of machinery in these operations, but monocultures can also increase the risk of diseases or pest outbreaks. Diversity can be added both in time, as with a crop rotation or sequence, or in space, with a polyculture or intercropping.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Companion planting</span> Agricultural technique

Companion planting in gardening and agriculture is the planting of different crops in proximity for any of a number of different reasons, including pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial insects, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity. Companion planting is a form of polyculture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Milpa</span> Mesoamerican crop growing system

In agriculture, milpa is a field for growing food crops and a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica, especially in the Yucatán peninsula, in Mexico. The word milpa derives from the Nahuatl phrase mil-pa. Based on the agronomy of the Maya and of other Mesoamerican peoples, the milpa system is used to produce crops of maize, beans, and squash without employing artificial pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Agriculture in Mesoamerica</span> Account of archaic North American agriculture

Agriculture in Mesoamerica dates to the Archaic period of Mesoamerican chronology. At the beginning of the Archaic period, the Early Hunters of the late Pleistocene era led nomadic lifestyles, relying on hunting and gathering for sustenance. However, the nomadic lifestyle that dominated the late Pleistocene and the early Archaic slowly transitioned into a more sedentary lifestyle as the hunter gatherer micro-bands in the region began to cultivate wild plants. The cultivation of these plants provided security to the Mesoamericans, allowing them to increase surplus of "starvation foods" near seasonal camps; this surplus could be utilized when hunting was bad, during times of drought, and when resources were low. The cultivation of plants could have been started purposefully, or by accident. The former could have been done by bringing a wild plant closer to a camp site, or to a frequented area, so it was easier access and collect. The latter could have happened as certain plant seeds were eaten and not fully digested, causing these plants to grow wherever human habitation would take them.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Intercropping</span> Multiple cropping practice involving growing two or more crops in proximity

Intercropping is a multiple cropping practice that involves growing two or more crops in proximity. In other words, intercropping is the cultivation of two or more crops simultaneously on the same field. The most common goal of intercropping is to produce a greater yield on a given piece of land by making use of resources or ecological processes that would otherwise not be utilized by a single crop.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polyculture</span> Growing multiple crops together in agriculture

In agriculture, polyculture is the practice of growing more than one crop species in the same space, at the same time. In doing this, polyculture attempts to mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems. Polyculture is the opposite of monoculture, in which only one plant or animal species is cultivated together. Polyculture can improve control of some pests, weeds, and diseases while reducing the need for pesticides. Intercrops of legumes with non-legumes can increase yields on low-nitrogen soils due to biological nitrogen fixation. However, polyculture can reduce crop yields due to competition between the mixed species for light, water, or nutrients. It complicates management as species have different growth rates, days to maturity, and harvest requirements: monoculture is more amenable to mechanisation. For these reasons, many farmers in large-scale agriculture continue to rely on monoculture and use crop rotation to add diversity to the system.

In agriculture, monocropping is the practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land. Maize, soybeans, and wheat are three common crops often monocropped. Monocropping is also referred to as continuous cropping, as in "continuous corn." Monocropping allows for farmers to have consistent crops throughout their entire farm. They can plant only the most profitable crop, use the same seed, pest control, machinery, and growing method on their entire farm, which may increase overall farm profitability.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands</span> Indigenous groups in the US

Indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands, Southeastern cultures, or Southeast Indians are an ethnographic classification for Native Americans who have traditionally inhabited the area now part of the Southeastern United States and the northeastern border of Mexico, that share common cultural traits. This classification is a part of the Eastern Woodlands. The concept of a southeastern cultural region was developed by anthropologists, beginning with Otis Mason and Frank Boas in 1887. The boundaries of the region are defined more by shared cultural traits than by geographic distinctions. Because the cultures gradually instead of abruptly shift into Plains, Prairie, or Northeastern Woodlands cultures, scholars do not always agree on the exact limits of the Southeastern Woodland culture region. Shawnee, Powhatan, Waco, Tawakoni, Tonkawa, Karankawa, Quapaw, and Mosopelea are usually seen as marginally southeastern and their traditional lands represent the borders of the cultural region.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of agriculture</span>

Agriculture began independently in different parts of the globe, and included a diverse range of taxa. At least eleven separate regions of the Old and New World were involved as independent centers of origin. The development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago changed the way humans lived. They switched from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to permanent settlements and farming.

Domesticated plants of Mesoamerica, established by agricultural developments and practices over several thousand years of pre-Columbian history, include maize and capsicum. A list of Mesoamerican cultivars and staples:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands</span> Native peoples in Eastern Canada and Northeastern United States

Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands include Native American tribes and First Nation bands residing in or originating from a cultural area encompassing the northeastern and Midwest United States and southeastern Canada. It is part of a broader grouping known as the Eastern Woodlands. The Northeastern Woodlands is divided into three major areas: the Coastal, Saint Lawrence Lowlands, and Great Lakes-Riverine zones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eastern Agricultural Complex</span> Agricultural practices of pre-historic native cultures in the eastern United States and Canada

The Eastern Agricultural Complex in the woodlands of eastern North America was one of about 10 independent centers of plant domestication in the pre-historic world. Incipient agriculture dates back to about 5300 BCE. By about 1800 BCE the Native Americans of the woodlands were cultivating several species of food plants, thus beginning a transition from a hunter-gatherer economy to agriculture. After 200 BCE when maize from Mexico was introduced to the Eastern Woodlands, the Native Americans of the eastern United States and adjacent Canada slowly changed from growing local indigenous plants to a maize-based agricultural economy. The cultivation of local indigenous plants other than squash and sunflower declined and was eventually abandoned. The formerly domesticated plants returned to their wild forms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ancient Maya cuisine</span> Diet of the Ancient Mesoamerican civilization

Ancient Maya cuisine was varied and extensive. Many different types of resources were consumed, including maritime, flora, and faunal material, and food was obtained or produced through strategies such as hunting, foraging, and large-scale agricultural production. Plant domestication concentrated upon several core foods, the most important of which was maize.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Intensive crop farming</span>

Intensive crop farming is a modern industrialized form of crop farming. Intensive crop farming's methods include innovation in agricultural machinery, farming methods, genetic engineering technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale in production, the creation of new markets for consumption, patent protection of genetic information, and global trade. These methods are widespread in developed nations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maize</span> Genus of grass cultivated as a food crop

Maize, also known as corn, is a cereal grain first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. The leafy stalk of the plant produces pollen inflorescences and separate ovuliferous inflorescences called ears that when fertilized yield kernels or seeds, which are fruits. The term maize is preferred in formal, scientific, and international usage as a common name because it refers specifically to this one grain, unlike corn, which has a complex variety of meanings that vary by context and geographic region.

Indigenous horticulture is practised in various ways across all inhabited continents. Indigenous refers to the native peoples of a given area and horticulture is the practice of small-scale intercropping.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prehistoric agriculture on the Great Plains</span>

Agriculture on the precontact Great Plains describes the agriculture of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains of the United States and southern Canada in the Pre-Columbian era and before extensive contact with European explorers, which in most areas occurred by 1750. The principal crops grown by Indian farmers were maize (corn), beans, and squash, including pumpkins. Sunflowers, goosefoot, tobacco, gourds, and plums, were also grown.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pre-Columbian cuisine</span>

Pre-Columbian cuisine refers to the food and drink consumed by the people who inhabited the Americas before Christopher Columbus explored the region and introduced food and crops from Europe. Though the Columbian Exchange introduced many new animals and plants to the Americas, cultures of their own already existed there, including the Aztec, Maya, Incan, and Native American. The development of agriculture allowed the many different cultures to transition from hunting to staying in one place. A major element of this cuisine is maize, which began being grown in central Mexico. Other crops that flourished in the Americas include amaranth, wild rice, and lima beans.

Jane Mount Pleasant is an American agricultural scientist and associate professor emerita at Cornell University.


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Further reading