Three Sisters gardening was an original practice of the northeastern Native Americans. The gardening technique was defined by planting a combination of corn, squash, and beans in the same field (as opposed to monoculture). On the surface alone, the benefits of growing these three crops together was obvious. Semi-climbing beans found the corn stalks to be sufficient support, while bush beans shaded the base of the corn roots, keeping moisture in the soil where it was needed. Squash did the same only over greater distance; the plants vines crawled between the corn mounds, presenting their large, wide leaves to the sun. This not only stopped the hot sun from scorching the earth and stealing moisture, it also discouraged weeds from taking hold. Native farmers only needed to hoe their gardens up to two or three times in the early summer, thanks to the ground coverage of beans and squash. Semi-climbing beans also made a latticework between the four to six corn plants sown in each mound. The bean web worked to strengthen the corn against the damaging effects of strong winds and heavy rains that could bend the vulnerable stalks. Corn cannot prosper without human intervention, and part of that intervention may have included methods of supporting weak stalks with beans.
The codependent nature of beans and corn did not stop aboveground. Corn needed lots of nitrogen, an element vital to plant cell growth. Beans (legumes) “trapped” nitrogen due to the type of bacteria they host in their roots. When the nitrogen loaded bacteria died, it released its nitrogen into the soil. This is referred to as “nitrogen fixation” – fixation defines the process in which soil bacteria converts atmospheric nitrogen into a stable and biologically usable form. Corn, notorious for draining garden soil of nitrogen, was fed annually a renewing source nitrogen created by bacteria. Combining corn and bean plants extended the life of Native cornfields by not draining the soil of nutrients with the same intensity as monoculture.
Combining corn and beans also continued after the growing season, as corn and bean dishes were very popular. Soft whole beans were baked in cornbreads, or the dry beans were ground into a meal that was mixed with cornmeal and made into breads, puddings, and liquid baby food. Combining whole kernel corn and beans made a dish referred to as succotash, a Native plural meaning “cooked whole grains.” While the flavor combination was considered complimentary, the combination of such had less superficial benefits on the diet of the Woodland Indian Peoples. The nutritional value of corn and beans were boosted when consumed together, as together they formed a “complete protein.” A complete protein is a protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. Complete proteins are found naturally in meats and few plant sources, making the combination of corn and beans crucial in the diets of the corn-based peoples of Native America, including many communities in the northeast.
-“Indian New England Before the Mayflower” by Howard S. Russell
-“Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes” by W.C. Lindemann, Soil Microbiologist, and C.R. Glover, Extension Agronomist. New Mexico State University, College of Agriculture and Home Economics
-“Parker on the Iroquois” by Arthur C. Parker
-“Plants From the Past” by Leonard W. Blake and Hugh C. Cutler
-“Societies in Eclipse: Archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands Indians, A.D. 1400-1700