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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 14, 2001 - Issue 40


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Sister Act: Corn, Beans and Squash


 by Adrienne Cook Special to The Washington Post Thursday, June 28, 2001


Three Sisters
Gregg M. Thomas (1952- ), Nedrow, New York, Wolf clan, Onondaga, 1996

Three Sisters Gregg M. Thomas (1952- ), Nedrow, New York, Wolf clan, Onondaga, 1996In an age of shrinking yards and gardens, it is useful to remember that Native American tribes knew how to use land efficiently for food production. One ancient tradition was planting what was known as the “three sisters”—corn, beans and squash.

These were sown together on the same bit of land, whether a small garden or a whole field. They complement each other well. Beans add nitrogen to the soil as they grow: Corn demands a lot of nitrogen. The squash shades the ground, retaining moisture and preventing weeds from growing. The beans that were sown were always pole beans, which climb up the corn. Vining squashes too will use corn as support, though they are as likely to simply scamper happily about the base.

Modern gardeners with limited space can net delicious sweet corn; a fine crop of snap beans, followed by the nutrient-rich shelly-stage bean slipped from the pods and used fresh or dried for winter stews, and finally, in the fall, a cornucopia of colorful hard-shelled squashes.

This ancient practice calls for traditional varieties. Two of the oldest sweet corn varieties are Hickory King and Country Gentleman. The first is a “dent” corn, a category of field corn named for its dented kernels.

Dent corns traditionally are used for drying and grinding into corn flour, which Hickory King is known for, but it also has a great reputation as a roasting corn and for grits. Kernels are large on eight-inch ears, and cobs are small. But the stalks of Hickory King are strong and sturdy, making it the top choice as a support for climbing plants of all kinds.

Country Gentleman is a white, shoepeg corn: kernels are not lined up like soldiers on the cobs, but meander crookedly around the cob. Not as sweet as modern varieties, Country Gentleman has a true “corny” flavor and, like Hickory King, is one of the finest roasting corns. Both grow to about eight feet in three months.

Sown right alongside the corn, the beans must be a variety that tolerates shade. The heirloom Genuine Cornfield was grown just for this purpose. Also known as Scotia or Striped Creaseback, Genuine Cornfield is a multipurpose bean with round green pods that are tender when picked young and, later, producing fat beans that were reputedly used by the Cayuga Iroquois, in what is now south-central New York, for corn-bean soup and as a bread bean.

Genuine Cornfield won’t clamber up to the top of an eight-foot corn stalk, and it has the added attribute of not wrapping a death grip around the stalk, which some heavily climbing pole beans do. It can be trained up sunflowers as readily as corn, especially the wonderful Grey Mammoth sunflower variety, which itself gets as tall as any corn.

To control weeds and evaporation in a Three Sisters patch, any one of the many vining winter squashes does well. Pumpkins are excellent; a variety such as Connecticut Field would fit in with the overall theme because this is a pre-1700 Native American cultivar. It produces 15- to 20-pound, bright orange pumpkins that are versatile enough for pies and stews as well as jack-o’-lanterns.

Acorn squashes also were grown by Native American tribes that farmed. The Arikara Indians in what is now the Dakotas, used to grow an earlier variation of the 20-century heirloom Table Queen, still widely available today. When it’s mature, the skin has a dark-green matte finish with a hard shell like a pumpkin, and the flesh inside is golden yellow. But the fruit of Table Queen also can be eaten at its immature stage when the skin is still soft, like summer squash.

All these ancient varieties are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (540-894-9480; located close to Charlottesville.

The corn matures all at once within a two-week period, but the squash and beans can be picked staggered over many weeks, depending on the desired stage. The trick to getting all three sisters to do well is in spacing. Cornstalks should be growing no less than 12 inches apart; 16 to 18 inches is better. The Cornfield beans don’t mind the shade, and the winter squash is happy if it gets about the same amount of sun as does the base of a cornstalk. Also, the squash will likely make every attempt to escape the confines of the Three Sisters patch and march about as far as the gardener will permit.

It is as fine and honorable a way of growing highly nutritious fresh food as any devised.

Three Sisters Cookbook
The Three Sisters Story - Modern day agriculturists know it as the genius of the Indians, who interplanted pole beans and squash with corn, using the strength of the sturdy corn stalks to support the twining beans and the shade of the spreading squash vines to trap moisture for the growing crop.


Three Sisters Garden
Welcome to the garden of the Three Sisters. Who are the Three Sisters? The journey that you are about to embark on will inform you. The Three Sisters are not people at all....

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