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"The Three Sisters:" Legends and Facts

Apr. 13, 2018

"The Three Sisters:" Legends and Facts

By Angela Judd
Gardener

Growing up in Arizona, I was lucky to learn about the Native American legend of “The Three Sisters”—how corn, beans, and squash came to be grown together in so many different native cultures. This trio sustained Native Americans both physically and spiritually.  “The Three Sisters” provide a nutritionally balanced diet and are meant to be grown together and eaten together. There are many versions of the Native American legend of “the Three Sisters.” One I like is:

The Three Sisters

“A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister [squash] was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister [beans] wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third [corn] was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong. One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters—a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals—this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water's edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister—the one in the yellow dress—disappeared as well. Now the Elder Sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.”

(Taken from an oral account by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, compiled by students at Centennial College and found in Indian Legends of Eastern Canada.)

Planting “The Three Sisters” creates a beneficial relationship — each plant helps the others grow. As older sisters often do, the corn stalks support the climbing beans, and provide shade and preserve moisture for the sprawling squash vines. The beans help provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. The large leaves of the squash are living mulch that reduce weeds and preserve moisture, and their prickly leaves deter pests.

Tips for growing “the Three Sisters”

Check your local planting dates. For example, in the low desert of Arizona the best time to plant “The Three Sisters” is during the late summer monsoon. This helps take advantage of the added humidity and rain during that time. Check local planting guides for the best time to plant in your area.

Choose a large area. You need at least a 4 foot by 4 foot area for each group of corn, squash, and beans. Ideally, grow several groupings of plants together. Amend the soil well with compost and mound the dirt in the middle of each four foot area where you plan to grow.

Plant corn first. Plant the corn an inch deep in a two foot circle around the mound. Space each seed about ten inches apart. Cover with soil, and water well.Growing In The Garden Slow Food Three Sisters corn

Plant beans next. When the corn has grown to about five inches, plant four pole bean seeds (not bush variety) around each stalk.Growing In The Garden Slow Food beans

Plant squash last. After beans emerge, plant six squash seeds around the perimeter of the mound.Growing In The Garden Slow Food closeup

Water regularly and deeply. Do not let plants dry out. It’s best to water at soil level, not getting water on the leaves which can spread disease.

Enjoy your harvest!

Plant, eat, and celebrate “The Three Sisters” together, and teach someone you love the Indian legend of sisters who would never be apart from one another.

Angela Judd is an avid vegetable, flower and fruit tree gardener in Mesa, Arizona. A mother of five children, she enjoys growing and preparing food from the garden for her family. She shares garden inspiration & helpful tips on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog growinginthegarden.com

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