I always knew that having a sister made life much better. It turns out, even plants agree with that. Three Sisters agriculture has been a Native American tradition for centuries and is still practiced today.
It involves planting corn, beans and squash — the sisters — together so that, like good sisters everywhere, they can support, protect and enrich each other.
Galveston gardener Mike Overton uses the technique in a small garden he planted for his grandchildren.
“The corn stalks grow first, and then they’re the beanpoles for the other plants to climb up,” he said.
The bean vines then stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to being blown over by the wind.
While the squash and beans benefit from the cornstalks’ sturdy height, they are contributing to the corn’s success by forming a ground cover that holds in moisture and slows the growth of weeds. The prickly squash vines also repel many garden pests that would otherwise feast on the ears of corn.
The Three Sisters technique, and accompanying folklore, was common among the Native American tribes of the Southwest. Native cultures from Central America to Cape Cod also followed the practice, and American historians have commented that early European settlers would have never survived without being introduced to the concept by the Native Americans.
After growing harmoniously, the sisters get along even better once they’re harvested. Lois Ellen Frank, author of “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” said the three provide a nutritionally balanced diet.
“Beans are rich in protein and two essential nutrients that corn lacks,” she writes. “Corn, the chief source of carbohydrates, provides energy, while squash is high in vitamin A and is a valuable source of oil through its seeds.”
The trio complement each other in a wide variety of dishes year-round, but are especially good in the summer when fresh corn and squash hit the markets.
Corn and zucchini are most often paired together, but any summer squash, including yellow crookneck or pale-green pattypan, can be substituted in almost any recipe calling for the two. The main difference will be less color contrast and a slightly sweeter taste.
Sisters aren’t just fair-weather friends, though; and most recipes featuring the three sisters can be made with frozen vegetables and canned beans. Succotash, one of the most common pairings of corn and beans, is now often made with canned lima beans and corn, though the original succotash chefs, the Naragansett Indians of New York, likely used fresh vegetables.
Similarly, succotash and other sautéed combinations of the three sisters are excellent ways to use up extra ears of corn on the cob. There is almost no difference in cooking time between heating cooked corn compared to sautéing fresh kernels sliced from the cob.
Beyond fresh corn, other corn products also team up with squash and beans. Corn tortillas sandwiched with beans, cheese and squash deliver complete protein without meat in fast and easy quesadillas.
Just as in the garden, the corn tortillas provide structure for the squash and beans, which in turn hold the tortillas in place — a great example of sisters sticking together.
Corn and Zucchini Saute
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1⁄2 cup chopped onions
- 1⁄2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
- 2 cups corn kernels
- 1 pound zucchini, quartered lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1⁄4-inch-thick pieces
- 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄8 teaspoon black pepper
Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute.
Add the corn, zucchini, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini and corn are cooked through but not mushy, about 5 to 7 minutes.
(Recipe adapted from “Martha’s American Food,”
by Martha Stewart)
Three Sisters Stew
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped green pepper
- 1⁄2 cup chopped celery
- 2 cups (about 3 medium) potatoes, cubed
- 1 15- to 16-ounce can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 15- to 16-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
- 1 cup corn kernels
- 1 cup cubed zucchini squash
- 1 14.5-ounce can no-added-salt whole tomatoes, undrained and chopped
- 1 6-ounce can no-added-salt tomato paste
- 11⁄2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
Coat a large Dutch oven with vegetable cooking spray, add oil and heat until hot. Add the chopped onions, green pepper, celery; saute 4-5 minutes, or until vegetables are crisp-tender.
Add the beans, potatoes and remaining ingredients; stir well. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through. Stir occasionally while cooking.
(Recipe from the Manataka American Indian
Council of the Oneida Indian Nation)
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 medium zucchini, diced
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
- 1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1⁄2 cup mild salsa
- 1 15-ounce can no-fat refried beans
- 11⁄2 cups shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese
- 6 8-inch corn tortillas
Heat the oil in a nonstick pan on medium heat. Add the zucchini, onion, cumin, chili powder and salsa and cook until onions and zucchini are soft. Add half the cheese and cook until cheese is melted.
Spread the filling on three tortillas and top with the remaining cheese. Spread the refried beans on the other three tortillas (there will be some beans left over) and place on top of the first three, bean side down.
Cook on a hot griddle or skillet until lightly browned. Flip and cook on the other side until browned and cheese has melted.
Cut into quarters and serve warm.
(Recipe adapted from “No Whine with Dinner,”
by Liz Weiss and Janice Bissex)